A furious row over the state of British ports spilled into the open on Monday amid warnings that the end of the Brexit transition period could see ships turned away amid a surge in freight volumes into the UK that is clogging up one of the country’s largest hubs.
Stockpiling by retailers ahead of Christmas and the UK’s exit from the European Union, along with large government orders of health equipment to combat Covid-19, has already caused congestion at Britain's largest port of Felixstowe, which handles 40 per cent of all containers coming in and out of the country.
Parliament’s House of Lords EU Goods Sub-Committee meeting on how prepared port and channel operators were for the end of the transition period, heard Conservative Peter Lilley charge that the UK ports’ lack of preparedness for Brexit “seems breath-taking”.
“How is it that the continental ports seem to have got on and done things, and were done ahead of March 2019, whereas we’re thinking of doing it now four years after the referendum?” asked Mr Lilley in the virtual webinar.
Richard Ballantyne, chief executive of the British Ports Association, said the delay in putting in place the necessary post-Brexit infrastructure was because port operators had been waiting for instruction from the government.
“The UK has had several proposed EU / UK customs arrangement deals pitched so we haven’t been able to prepare fully for what the industry needs to prepare for,” he said.
John Keefe, director of public affairs at Getlink, the Eurotunnel operator, said it was easier for European ports to prepare earlier as "a clear decision was taken by the EU and France to treat the UK as a third country in terms of customs and border formalities.
"They simply applied the existing EU rules on third countries, so they had a playbook to work to in terms of what would be needed in infrastructure and controls," he said.
With Britain’s December 31 exit fast approaching, retailers across the UK have been loading up their warehouses as they prepare for the double hit of Christmas demand and the end of the single market.
"What we are seeing already is a significant increase in traffic," said Mr Keefe. "The pre-Brexit stockpiling that we saw in the past is definitely a feature in the build-up to the end of the year. Since the beginning of this final quarter we’ve seen quite a noticeable increase."
Industry experts say the increased flow of goods into country has been heightened by the lockdown in the spring when businesses postponed or cancelled large orders from overseas suppliers.
At Felixstowe, however, the congestion has also been exacerbated by 11,000 containers of government-procured PPE equipment for the National Health Service, which the port is struggling to store.
Some of the containers have been at the port since August, according to a spokesman for the port, and while Felixstowe is proud to support the government, it does “create additional pressure on top of a more general spike in volumes”.
However, the port is the worst-performing port among key competitors in Europe and Asia, according to data for the first nine months of this year from information provider IHS Markit. It found that container ships spent more than 42 hours on average waiting and unloading at the port, a figure which drops to 24 hours at major ports in Asia and northern Europe.
"The Chinese ports are the most efficient, and in this case nearly three times more so than the lower ranked European terminals” IHS Markit told The National. “At this level of comparison, the UK ports lag all others including their North European peers."
Earlier this month, the National Audit Office backed up complaints by business leaders who have been warning for months that the government is putting pressure on companies to prepare, but failing to do enough itself.
"Even if government makes further progress with its preparations, there is still likely to be significant disruption at the border from January 1 2021 as traders will be unprepared for new EU border controls which will require additional administration and checks," the NAO said.
With or without a deal, British companies will have to wade through reams of new red tape to ensure that goods comply with EU standards. They will also be compelled to make customs declarations before taking those goods across the border.
Under its "reasonable worst-case scenario", the UK government said that queues of up to 7,000 heavy-goods vehicles could develop in southeast England from January 1.
It insists it has ploughed more than £700 million ($920 million) into border infrastructure, but business groups say they are hampered by the slow rollout of IT systems identified by the NAO.
While delegates questioned at the EU Goods Sub-Committee said the IT systems in ports and the Channel Tunnel are ready, they questioned whether the government was at a similar stage.
Mr Keefe said he was confident any systems prepared internally for the Eurotunnel "will work perfectly come January 1", but that "there has to be a degree of concern” as to whether systems being developed by the government “will be ready in time” as some of the systems aren’t being tested until mid-December.
Mr Lilley asked European operators to explain why they were so prepared “when the British government hasn’t produced a similar speedy reaction in our domestic ports".
Mark Dijk, manager of external affairs at the Port of Rotterdam, said the port had been preparing for Brexit since 2017 and had clarity on what needed to be done from February 2018, when the the government and the relevant authorities made it clear that it "does not matter if there is a hard or soft" Brexit, "every Brexit will be hard."
"Prepare for the worse and hope for the best, that was the statement from the beginning," he said.
Mr Dijk said as well as investment in IT infrastructure, which it launched last year, the port has also invested in 750 new parking spaces to allow lorries with incorrect paperwork to park for 24 hours, and hired 750 new customs officers.
"We can avoid traffic jams in the port because we have some space available. The export process from Rotterdam will go quite smoothly," he said, adding that he definitely expected "hiccups" because "not everyone will be prepared not only from the European side but also from the UK side".
"We are ready as a port but you can’t be ready alone. If you look at the whole supply chain, producers, manufacturers, they have to be preparing as well. You can’t just leave it to the ports, the ports operators and customs – it is the supply chain's responsibility and that is for both sides and that is what we are worried about the most."
Jean-Marc Puissesseau, chief executive of the Port of Calais, said the port has been working on Brexit since 2018 with the objective to keep fluidity through the port.
When hauliers leave Dover, they will have to declare their goods and during the journey will be notified as to whether they go through the green lane directly out of the port or through the orange lane for further customs checks
"As we are two years behind the first exit date of the end of March 2018, I think the hauliers must be prepared and if they are not, we have staff ready to help them – I do hope it is the same in Dover," Mr Puissesseau said. "If everyone respects the rules there will not be any problem."