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Smart Freight portal ‘will be delivered on time’ says Gove – updated

[ September 23, 2020   //   ]

The government is insisting that the Smart Freight portal will be operating in time for Brexit at the end of the year, despite doubts expressed over its readiness by the industry.

In a letter to traders and hauliers about plans for potential disruption to freight travelling between Great Britain and the EU at the end of the transition period on 31 December, Cabinet Office Minister and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove says that public testing of Smart Freight will begin in October and that it will be “fully operational by year end”.

He added that the Government would be contacting hauliers in the UK and EU directly, running targeted advertising and publishing an updated haulier handbook translated into relevant EU languages.

It would also open a Border Impact Centre by the end of the year to bring together government and key stakeholders. It would provide information on flows on routes between GB and the Continent and manage any disruption.

Gove warned: “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 fomralities.”

In a ‘Reasonable Worst Case Scenario’, the Government estimates that 40-70% of all trucks travelling to the EU  might not be border ready; for Dover and Eurotunnel it estimates the figure as 30-50%. The lack of capacity to hold such trucks at French ports, or to turn away freight prior to loading in the UK, could reduce the flow rate by up to 60-80% of normal levels, and lead to queues of up to 7,000 port-bound trucks in Kent, with delays of up to two days. There could also be knock-on delays to imports, it adds.

Disruption could be lower in early January (normally a quiet time for freight) “but we would expect sustained disruption to worsen over the first two weeks as freight demand builds”, says the government. It then predicts that disruption would reduce significantly over the next three months although passport checks could continue to cause some disruption.

A winter spike in Covid might also suppress freight demand, it says, although absenteeism by border staff or social distancing measures might also cause congestion.

The letter adds that shipping operators a number of other ports away from the Dover Straits might deny boarding to Continent-bound trucks without the correct documentation, which could cause queues and delays, although it predicts that disruption is unlikely to be significant or sustained.

Peel Ports Group commercial director Stephen Carr said in response: “We have long argued the UK is too reliant on a few key pinch points in the South-East and the announcements demonstrates the risks to UK businesses of this strategy.

“We have been preparing rigorously for many months and have invested heavily at our Liverpool, Heysham and Sheerness ports to ensure they have the capacity to accommodate cargo switch routes and modes. All three ports have already taken steps to improve resilience ahead of Brexit, with increased throughput capacity for HGV trailers, containers and storage to support smooth operations by RORO ferries and other shipping services.”

In response, UK Major Ports Group chief executive Tim Morris, said: “The Government is right to launch a plea for UK businesses to prepare for new border arrangements from the 1 January. Regardless of whether a deal with the EU is reached or not, arrangements for handling goods moving to and from the European Union and the UK will change. The implementation of new border controls will mean new requirements, processes and checks. Gove’s letter clearly sets out the potential for significant disruption, particularly in Kent. The UK has a range of ports all around the coast with additional capacity to handle EU-UK trade flows, many of whom are highly experienced in enabling global trade and border processes. It is vital that UK businesses understand their supply chain options and prepare really urgently for likely disruption in some areas and new requirements.”

British Ports Association chief executive Richard Ballantyne said: “The government’s worst-case scenarios are a stark reminder about the major changes that much of the UK’s freight industry will have to embrace following the end of the transition period. Whilst highlighting particular issues in Kent the analysis also underlines that this will be a national issue for traders and hauliers moving goods through a wider number of gateways facing the same issues. Put simply if the traders have not completed the correct customs requirements, they will be unable to transport their goods through any port.

“In recent months there has been a flurry of government activity. Ports are working to ensure infrastructure is ready but is still a lot to do. In particular decisions policy makers need to agree in respect of specifications for infrastructure. However in terms of the wider freight operations there is perhaps even more to do. We will now be looking at ways to support the government’s drive to communicate the new requirements to the wider freight and logistics industry to avoid many of the scenarios given in the analysis from arising.”

But the British International Freight Association (BIFA) said that the Government was “getting its retaliation in first” in publishing the letter.
Director general, Robert Keen pointed out:  “The Government has received repeated warnings from all sides of the supply chain that neither businesses involved in trade between the EU and the UK, nor the freight and logistics sector that physically handles and manages that trade, is ready for the new procedures that will be in place from January 1st 2021.
“With just over 14 weeks to go before the end of the Brexit Transition Period, traders and logistics providers are still waiting for so much information and clarity from the government and are shocked by the lack of consistency in Government policy, systems planning and procedures.
“Getting their retaliation in first worked for Carwyn James’ British & Irish Lions in South Africa in 1974, but Government making villains of the key workers who have been tackling the impact of the pandemic on the UK’s supply chains, will not have the same success.
“According to the media coverage, Mr Gove says it is essential that traders act now and get ready for new formalities. BIFA says give our members all the information they need, the resources they require and systems that actually work, and they will be more than able to do what is necessary. But don’t start pointing the finger of blame in our direction when you have still to provide all of the tools to do the job.”
Logistics UK (formerly FTA) said it had “long warned government of the potential for border delays after the UK leaves the EU, and while there is still time to put mitigations in place to avoid them, it will be a huge challenge for government and industryto achieve.  The ability of traders to complete and provide the correct paperwork will be key to ensuring the continued smooth passage of goods through the UK’s supply chain, and we are urging businesses exporting to the EU to install and understand the systems they will need to use in time for the 1 January 2021 deadline. 

“However, it is also incumbent on government to ensure logistics businesses have details of and access to the UK’s own logistics systems, including Smart Freight and GVMS, in good time so that adequate training and testing can be carried out. Full working guidance on the port systems to be used in Europe, particularly in France and Ireland, must also be provided by our EU partners to minimise delays and the potential for disruption to the supply chain at a time of year when the UK depends on imported goods across a number of sectors. With so much still to do, it is vital that all parties work together to keep the flow of trade moving smoothly between the UK and EU.”

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