Leaked letter warns of 7,000-truck-long queues in Kent post-Brexit

23 September 2020, 08:06 | Updated: 23 September 2020, 08:19

Lorry queues of up to 7,000 trucks could become the norm for months after the Brexit transition period
Lorry queues of up to 7,000 trucks could become the norm for months after the Brexit transition period. Picture: PA
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

There could be two-day-long queues of up to 7,000 trucks in Kent post-Brexit, a leaked letter from ministers has warned.

The gloomy scenario is considered a "worst-case" at the end of the Brexit transition period if hauliers fail to prepare for changes to customs rules.

Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove, tasked with preparing for No Deal, has written to logistics groups informing them of the government's "reasonable worst-case scenario" plan.

It warns of delays of up to two days for cargo travelling from the UK to France in January.

However, the Cabinet Office has stressed that the scenario - which Mr Gove will outline in the Commons on Wednesday - is not a forecast.

The leaked letter comes prior to the European Union's chief negotiator Michel Barnier's trip to London where he will continue informal talks with his counterpart Lord Frost about striking a post-Brexit trade deal.

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However, the document, that was sent to logistics associations, warned that the changes could come whether a deal is agreed or not.

The transition period - which kept Britain aligned to the EU's single market and customs union rules in order to allow cargo to flow smoothly after the UK formally left the bloc in January - expires at the end of 2020 unless both sides agree to an extension, a prospect Prime Minister Boris Johnson has ruled out.

In a reasonable worst-case scenario, the Cabinet Office letter says between 30-50% of trucks crossing the Channel will not be ready for when the new regulations, whatever they may be, come into effect on 1 January 2021.

It states that a "lack of capacity to hold unready trucks at French ports" could reduce the flow of traffic across the strait to 60-80% of normal levels.

"This could lead to maximum queues of 7,000 port bound trucks in Kent and associated maximum delays of up to two days," the letter stated.

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It also revealed that delays could last for at least three months as alternative routes are set up and while supply chains work out the new systems and requirements.

In his letter, Mr Gove said: "Irrespective of the outcome of negotiations between the UK and EU, traders will face new customs controls and processes.

"Simply put, if traders, both in the UK and EU, have not completed the right paperwork, their goods will be stopped when entering the EU and disruption will occur.

"It is essential that traders act now and get ready for new formalities."

However, sector chiefs have accused the government of failing to do sufficient work in recent weeks regarding the threat of post-Brexit border delays.

Logistics UK, formerly the Freight Transport Association, expressed anger last week after being told the government's Smart Freight system - designed to reduce the risk of cargo delays once Britain is outside of EU rules - would still be in testing mode in January when UK exports face new border regulations.

Meanwhile, the Road Haulage Association (RHA) said their meeting on Thursday with Mr Gove had fallen "far short of our expectations".

Responding to the worst-case scenario document, RHA chief executive Richard Burnett said: "We've been consistently warning the government that there will be delays at ports but they're just not engaging with industry on coming up with solutions.

"Traders need 50,000 more customs intermediaries to handle the mountain of new paperwork after transition but government support to recruit and train those extra people is woefully inadequate.

"The answers to the questions that we raised in our letter to Mr Gove and subsequent roundtable meeting last Thursday still remain unanswered - and our concern continues to grow."

However, the government is reportedly planning to mitigate the impact around Dover and ports in the South East.

This month, there was a suggestion that a Covid-19 testing centre in Ebbsfleet, Kent, was closed to make way for a post-Brexit lorry park to allow customs checks to be carried out away from the Port of Dover.

A UK Government spokesman said: "With just 100 days to go until the end of the transition period it's vital that businesses prepare now for new rules that will come into force at the end of the year, so that they can hit the ground running on 1 January 2021 and seize new opportunities.

"As a responsible government, we continue to make extensive preparations for a wide range of scenarios, including the reasonable worst case.

"This is not a forecast or prediction of what will happen but rather a stretching scenario."

The leaked document comes as a think tank said that failure to strike a deal with the EU in post-Brexit trade talks could hit Britain's economy three times harder than coronavirus in the long term.

Queues at the border, shortages of fresh food and medicine as well as more "hassle" travelling to the continent are also possible, according to the UK in a Changing Europe group.

A report by the organisation, based on modelling with the London School of Economics (LSE), said the impacts of coronavirus may mitigate or obscure the effect of exiting the bloc without a formal arrangement.

It also warned that not forming an agreement with Brussels would have a significant impact in the long term.

The authors wrote: "Our modelling with LSE of the impact of a no-deal Brexit suggests that the total cost to the UK economy over the longer term will be two to three times as large as that implied by the Bank of England's forecast for the impact of Covid-19."

Trade deal talks between the two sides are continuing, but the prime minister has set a deadline of 15 October for an agreement to be reached, otherwise he has said he will simply walk away from the negotiating table.