The road transport sector was bracing itself for what commentators were predicting – not for the first time – was the beginning of the Brexit endgame, as the longest parliamentary session since the English Civil War drew to a dramatic close.
Over the last three months, the UK has seen the appointment of a new prime minister, Boris Johnson, a vow to leave the European Union come what may on 31 October, and a controversial move to prorogue Parliament, the legality of which is this week being decided in the UK’s highest court.
In early September, a string of major defeats in the Commons led the PM to threaten to table a snap general election for mid-October, but opposition parties blocked it on the grounds that he could later alter the date unilaterally, thus causing an automatic crash-out from the EU while parliament was dissolved.
Instead, opposition MPs and Tory rebels passed a law that would compel Mr Johnson to request a further three-month extension to the Brexit deadline should no deal have been agreed by mid-October. The prime minister has said he will not countenance this, while simultaneously insisting that he will obey the rule of law – suggesting the government may believe there is some way around the obligation.
Backbenchers also used an arcane parliamentary measure to force Mr Johnson’s government to publish a report on Operation Yellowhammer, its civil contingencies operation, which the Road Haulage Association (RHA) said confirmed “its worst fears” about a no-deal Brexit’s impact on the supply chain.
The document, which has now been published electronically on the government website, considers what it calls the “reasonable worst case scenario” on ‘Day 1 No Deal’ (D1ND).
“On D1ND, between 50-85 per cent of HGVs travelling via the short Channel Straits may not be ready for French customs,” the report said.
“The lack of trader readiness combined with limited space in French ports to hold “unready” HGVs could reduce the flow rate to 40-60 per cent of current levels within one day, as unready HGVs will fill the ports and block flow.
“The worst disruption to the short Channel Straits might last for up to three months before it improves by a significant level to around 50-70 per cent (due to more traders getting prepared), although there could continue to be some disruption for significantly longer…
“[The] disruption… would also cause significant queues in Kent and delays to HGVs attempting to use the routes to travel to France.
“In a reasonable worst case scenario, HGVs could face maximum delays of 1.5-2.5 days before being able to cross the border.
“HGVs that are caught up in congestion in the UK will be unable to return to the EU to collect another load, and a proportion of logistics firms may decide to avoid the route should there be significant and prolonged disruption.”
It said risk of significant, sustained queues at non-Kent ports was low, according to analysis so far, but that the government would “continue to work directly with stakeholders” at such ports to plan accordingly.
Temperature controlled products would face particular issues in crossing the short straits, warned the report, and especially medicines.
It warned: “The reliance of medicines and medical products’ supply chains on the short straits crossing make them particularly vulnerable to severe extended delays…
“Supply chains are also highly regulated and require transportation that meets strict good distribution practices.
“This can include limits on time of transit, or mean product must be transported under temperature controlled conditions.
“Whilst some products can be stockpiled, others cannot due to short shelf livesl; it will also not be practical to stockpile products to cover expected delays of up to six months.”
Certain types of fresh food supply would decrease, it added.
“In combination, these two factors will not cause an overall shortage of food in the UK but will reduce availability and choice of products and will increase price…
“The agri-food supply chain will be under increased pressure… due to preparations for Christmas… Government will not be able to fully anticipate all potential impacts to the agri-food supply chain.”
The report adds that regional traffic disruption “could affect fuel distribution” within the local area, “particularly if traffic queues in Kent block the Dartford crossing, which would disrupt fuel supply in London and the south-east.
“Customer behaviour could lead to local shortages in other parts of the country.”
On the Irish border, the report warned that “the automatic application of the EU tariff and regulatory requirements for goods entering Ireland” would “severely disrupt trade”.
“Disruption to key sectors and job losses are likely to result in protests and direct action with road blockages.”
RHA chief executive Richard Burnett said the planning assumptions in the Yellowhammer report “come as no surprise”, and called on government to do everything possible to prepare businesses.
“This is what we’ve been talking about for the last three years; we’ve been consistently warning that no deal will mean disruption at the border and across the supply chain as firms get to grips with unfamiliar processes,” he remarked.
“An increase in energy from the government has been welcome but it needs to throw all its weight into minimising the impact leaving the EU without a deal will have on the economy.”
In August, a leaked analysis commissioned by the government reportedly suggested that lorries queuing at Dover on day one after a no-deal Brexit could face two-day delays in a worst-case scenario, with an average wait of around 36 hours and queues of up to 8,000 trucks. Currently, vehicles wait at the port for around two minutes.
Even at best, and with maximum preparation by businesses, the documents – which were seen by broadcaster Sky News in early September and had been compiled within the previous fortnight – predicted waits of two to three hours, with half of vehicles waiting for at least eight.
The consequences, the analysis predicted, would be the cancellation by fleets of many vehicles’ journeys, leading to shortages on supermarket shelves and of hospital supplies.
Road Haulage Association (RHA) managing director for policy and public affairs, Rod McKenzie, said the cited delays would be “crippling” to sections of industry, while Labour Brexit spokesperson Keir Starmer called for the new transport secretary Grant Shapps, appointed in late July as part of Mr Johnson’s cabinet shake-up, to make a statement to MPs on the situation.
Manuel Cortes, general secretary of the transport and travel workers’ union TSSA, echoed his call, suggesting that Mr Shapps and the government were “either in a state of utter panic or unwilling to face the reality of a no deal Brexit on our transport sector”.
“Delays at Dover, or to services on the Eurostar, Eurotunnel or anywhere else in and out of the country would be deeply damaging. This cannot be allowed to happen…
“It’s easy to see that we are dealing with a government hellbent on a policy of economic idiocy. They think they can simply cross their fingers and hope everything will be alright. It’s not good enough and Mr Shapps must come to Parliament and tell the public what is going on.
“Sadly, however, it looks very much as though we have gone from Failing Grayling to Mishaps Shapps.”
Shapps’ Department for Transport has since taken fresh action to help hauliers prepare for Brexit, however, with the launch of a multi-million pound awareness campaign on 9 September.
The project will set up 150 “pop-up advice centres” in ten countries, with messaging supported by an advertising campaign on billboards and media. Hauliers will also be provided with a handbook and pocket guide with details of how they can prepare, in order to assure continued free travel. The pocket book is available in electronic form on the government website, in several languages.
The campaign also includes messages embedded into every booking confirmation email issued by ferry operators to hauliers, advising of the need for specific customs paperwork from 31 October; tailored emails to EU-wide trade bodies covering border readiness and new traffic management requirements; and industry liaison days to provide information to EU businesses.
Grant Shapps said: “This campaign is another example of the extensive preparations we are making for leaving the EU on 31 October.
“As an outward-facing global trading nation, the efficiency of our ports is of paramount importance. This multi-million-pound initiative ensures the UK will remain open for business, with goods continuing to move freely.”
The government has also announced additional funding for the Operation Brock contingency plan to tackle congestion in Kent, which will contribute towards setting up Manston airport as a lorry holding facility, implementing border readiness checks, and ensuring drivers comply with the plan.
In late August, DfT announced that it would spend £30 million on upgrading infrastructure, including at ports and on road links; and was calling on English ports to bid for a share of £10m to boost capacity and maintain throughput, which could be spent on additional parking for HGVs or improving traffic systems.
The RHA’s Richard Burnett said: “Of course we welcome government’s commitment to making ports Brexit ready, but as with all infrastructure improvements they take time, and that is a commodity that we do not have.”
Members’ concerns were much more immediate, he said.
“There is still a lack of clarity as regards the paperwork and processes needed to maintain free-flowing traffic. If one haulier is found to have incorrect documents then the knock-on effects will be catastrophic. No amount of infrastructure improvements will be able to cope with tailbacks of traffic resulting from one truck having incorrect or missing paperwork.”
Earlier in August, the Freight Transport Association (FTA) called for the government to share its full impact assessment for a no-deal scenario after the Yellowhammer report was leaked to journalists.
The leak also raised the spectre of a hard border in Ireland, on the basis that plans to avoid widespread checks on goods transiting the border were likely to prove unworkable.
FTA deputy chief executive James Hookham said: “This is not about the politics of Brexit – for the past three years, FTA has been pressing government for clarity on the trading environment we will be working in once the UK leaves the EU, with only limited success…
“It is disheartening to discover that the government has been concealing the facts which business needs in order to keep Britain trading effectively.
“The news that fuel supplies could be impacted is particularly worrying, considering this would affect the movement of goods both domestically and internationally – as an industry, we remember the impact of the 2000 fuel strike very well, and the chaos which it caused, both for business and for individuals.”
He said that he had written to Michael Gove – now the so-called chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who has been tasked with cross-departmental oversight of no-deal preparations – urging him to “come clean” on the detail in the report to help logistics businesses prepare for EU exit.
“FTA is still waiting for answers from government to the most critical questions which directly affect the way the sector operates, now and in the future. As an industry, we are resilient and flexible, but can only work with the information we are given.
“To assume that logistics businesses will be able to make sweeping changes to working practices with less than 80 days left before the UK’s scheduled departure from the EU is unrealistic at best, and not what we have been led to believe will be needed by government.”
Paul Holland, managing director for UK Fuels at fuel card provider Keyfuels, said: “There has been much discussed about the impact of Brexit and how it will affect the haulage sector. Just last week there were reports that lorries could potentially have to wait more than two days to cross the Channel, leading to increased operational costs.
“While it is impossible to know what the reality will be, it is essential fleet operators get a handle on what they can control.
“Given the difficulty and clarity over Brexit in any shape, fleet operators are much better focused on what they can control. Current uncertainty is not helping economic confidence and as a result, we would urge operators to stay especially close to larger areas of impact, such as fuel consumption.
“Given the structure of fuel prices, with a large part being uncontrollable, such as fuel duty and the oil commodity itself, it is very difficult to achieve material direct cost savings. However, with better management, it is possible to achieve material consumption savings. This is an area we continue to help our major customers drive real efficiencies.”