A deal on the UK’s future relationship with Europe had still to be struck between London and Brussels at the time of publication, as the pivotal 15 October meeting of EU leaders loomed by which it had been suggested any agreement would need to be reached.
Last month, no fewer than 33 transport business groups across Europe – including both the Road Haulage Association (RHA) and Logistics UK (formerly the Freight Transport Association) – signed an open letter to Michel Barnier and David Frost, the chief negotiators for the EU and UK respectively.
Referring to the trucks moving between the UK and EU as “the lifeblood of our interconnected economies”, the organisations called for a deal to be reached which would protect ongoing HGV movement, as well as allowing transit through the respective territories without the need for haulage permits and quota systems.
“Ending the transition period without an agreement between the EU and the UK is not an option for our industry,” said the letter.
“We believe reaching a robust compromise on a road haulage chapter as part of such agreement is both achievable and indispensable…
“We strongly believe the way forward lies in a reciprocal solution between the EU and the UK based on mutual recognition of standards, competences and certificates to provide for adequate safeguards in terms of fair competition, environmental performance, road safety and working conditions for drivers. Road freight transport operators on both sides of the Channel are committed to operating to high standards in these areas.
“Failing this, one would face a disheartening choice between a patchwork of fragmented national arrangements, and a world where the shortage of transport capacity on EU-UK routes is endorsed as official policy (quota of permits). Either option would be to everyone’s loss.”
The intervention came as a letter to domestic trade groups from the cabinet office minister Michael Gove, who is responsible for nodeal planning, outlined UK government strategies for a ‘reasonable worst-case scenario’ (RWCS), warning that between 30-50 per cent of trucks engaged on cross- Channel work via Dover and Eurotunnel may not be border ready at the end of the transition period on 1 January.
This, combined with a lack of capacity at French ports, “could lead to maximum queues of ~7,000 port-bound trucks in Kent and associated maximum delays of up to two days”.
Disruption could be lower in the initial days of January, the RWCS suggests, but sustained disruption would be expected to worsen over the first fortnight as freight demand builds.
“There could be a significant drop in disruption and improvement in flow capacity within the first three months as fewer unready HGVs arrive at the border, although Schengen passport controls at the juxtaposed controls could continue to cause disruption until the French relax checks or add more capacity to undertake checks,” said the letter.
It also suggested that freight demand could be suppressed by a winter spike in Covid-19, which: “could limit the extent of traffic disruption caused by a lack of border readiness; however other risks such as absenteeism among port or border staff and social distancing measures could adversely impact fluidity.
“At a number of other ports away from the short Channel crossings, operators have indicated their intention to deny boarding in the UK to freight vehicles that do not have appropriate documentation to enter the EU.
“There is a risk that this could cause queues and delays and there will need to be proportionate plans to manage this congestion, although there is unlikely to be significant, sustained disruption.”
The RHA said the letter “seems to attempt to shift the blame for the UK’s lack of preparedness for the end of the Brexit transition period onto hauliers”, and that it remained “extremely sceptical” about the government’s own readiness.
RHA chief executive Richard Burnett said: “It’s what we’ve been saying for many months. We know that traders and haulage operators will face new customs controls and processes and we know that if they haven’t completed the right paperwork their goods will be stopped when entering the EU.
“Mr Gove stresses that it’s essential that traders act now to get ready for new the formalities. We know for a fact that they are only too keen to be ready but how on earth can they prepare when there is still no clarity as to what they need to do?
“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, particularly as firms are trying to recover from Covid-19.”
He added that the future looked “very bleak indeed” and that a recent meeeting between industry representatives and Michael Gove’s team was “a total washout”, concluding: “Right now it appears that traders and haulage operators are being left to carry the can.”
The government also confirmed last month that truck drivers would require an access permit to get into the county of Kent from 1 January, with the new system to be enforced by police and automatic number plate recognition.
The Kent permit, which has been dubbed a ‘Kermit’ in some quarters, attracted sharp criticism from Michael Gove’s opposite number in the Labour Party, Rachel Reeves.
She said: “It is incredible that ministers are only now admitting to their plans to arrest British truckers for entering Kent without new travel passports.
“With just over three months to go, how are businesses meant to prepare amid this Conservative carnival of incompetence?’”