Brexit – First impressions after 31/12/2020 and expected changes

Brexit has so far gone smoothly at major UK ports, with most of the cliff-edge predictions of chaos from midnight on December 31 missing their mark.

But it is early days, and industry sources observe that trade is traditionally low in the first week of January, with the real test of just how prepared the UK is to come later this month.

Some observers also expressed private doubts on whether UK customs infrastructure will be in place by the government’s intended roll-out date, and believe that inspections may fall short of target.

At this stage, the biggest headache is that some truckers are arriving without having undergone necessary coronavirus testing, or not in possession of the right customs paperwork for admission to European Union ports.

This has result in them being turned back until they can fulfil both stipulations, although the scale of the problem has been manageable so far. This issue is said to be most manifest at ports providing connections to France, such as Dover, Poole, Newhaven and Portsmouth, as well as on Channel Tunnel services.

“The main message is, it’s very quiet at the moment,” said one senior ports sector figure. “That doesn’t mean it’ll suddenly get worse, but it’s a good time to introduce these systems. Probably before the end of the month, volumes will pick up to the usual numbers.” The remarks were seconded by a source at another large port, who confirmed: “There has been less impact than one might have feared.”

With the worst predictions of what might have happened following Britain’s departure from the customs union on 31 December not materializing, attention is now turning to the introduction of UK customs controls.

These are supposed to be up and running by July, with money available from a special ports infrastructure fund to help meet the cost of physically enabling ports to take on the new responsibilities. “It’s late and they’re not giving us that much money,” said the second source. “The government might have to look at the number of checks they want to make.”

The British Ports Association has marked the arrival of 2021 with a statement outlining its agenda for the year ahead, centred on sustainable growth and promoting the values of ports. The combination of Brexit and the latest national lockdown necessitated by the pandemic represent a daunting challenge.

However, despite the obvious changes for those operators handling EU freight, 2021 could see a bounce back from the various impacts that affected the UK and global economy last year.

In the short term, keeping the industry resilient and ports open could mean getting essential workers at ports up the queue just behind health workers, the clinically vulnerable and the elderly, in terms of the roll-out of the coronavirus vaccine.
Plans for free ports are in line with the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda, and the BPA is also expecting further economic stimulus measures.

Free ports is just one tool which will only target a limited number of particular locations. We will be encouraging policy makers to look at other mechanisms which will benefit all regions in respect to infrastructure and the regulatory environment.

Among the teams bidding for one of the 10 available places as a designated free port is a consortium led by operator Forth Ports, in collaboration with the Port of London Authority, Ford Dagenham, DP World’s London Gateway and some municipal authorities in the Thames estuary area.

This would be centred on the old Tilbury docks, and would emphasise job creation and urban regeneration, in an area of high deprivation. The scheme promises to double port capacity, securing 20,000 jobs and £400m in infrastructure spending.

“With almost 1,000 acres of land ready for development — much with planning consent secured — no other port cluster in the south of England can come close to matching our offer to deliver meaningful economic change and linked community benefits in the lifetime of this parliament,” the consortium said.

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Mr David Osler