Only eight weeks to go to Boris Johnson’s border chaos day

Lorries leaving ferries at a British port. Pic credit: National Audit Office

A damning new report has come from Parliament’s financial watchdog, the National Audit Office, on what to expect at the ports on January 2 whether the country leaves the EU with a deal or no deal.

Despite spending a humungous £1.41 billion for new infrastructure and IT systems – which wouldn’t be required if we had stayed in the EU – it looks like we are heading for chaos because we are still not properly prepared.

Instead of having to process some 55 million customs declarations a year Customs and Excise will have to handle 270 million.

And some 219.5 million tonnes of freight crossed the border between the UK and EU in 2019 and only between 30 and 60 per cent of lorries are prepared for the change.

And guess what? With eight weeks to go the government doesn’t know how much trade there is between the UK and Northern Ireland which is subject to the new Northern Ireland protocol that Boris Johnson signed last year. This will require new documentation and registering with a new import control service. And again the government doesn’t know how many firms have to sign up pointing to potential chaos on sea routes across the Irish sea between Wales, Scotland and England.

worst case scenario

And in the worst case scenario there could also be queues of up to 7000 lorries trying to access the Channel ports.

The scale of the exercise in Whitehall is shown by the number of departments involved As the report says:

“This includes HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC), the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, the Home Office, the Department for Transport, and the Border and Protocol Delivery Group (BPDG) and Transition Task Force (TTF), which are both situated within the Cabinet Office. BPDG is responsible for coordinating government’s preparations in relation to the border and TTF has oversight of overall EU Exit preparations, following the closure of the Department for Exiting the European Union in January 2020.”

Auditors have also engaged with departments within the
Northern Ireland civil service which have the most significant roles in relation to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The picture is not pretty. The first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic led to a three month pause in ministerial meetings to organise the new border regulations and as a result many of the new customs declarations will be delayed until July 2021 rather than January. Yet for political reasons the Cabinet would not extend the transition period,

computer glitches

Then there is a good chance of computer glitches in the operating of the new system at all ports. The report says:

“Integrating the processes, IT systems, infrastructure and resources to operate together for the first time from 1 January 2021 is inherently complex and high-risk. In addition third parties, such as ports and community software providers, who need to develop new software
which integrates with new or changed government systems, have been given very little time in which to prepare and are unlikely to be able to do so in time for 1 January 2021. “

Can you imagine the mess there will be on the first day and it won’t just be teething problems.

The government is hoping to get round it by appointing customs intermediaries – at a cost of £84 m – to help firms negotiate the new system. But it has started slowly, not all the money to appoint them has been used and Whitehall has given the plan a red light because they fear it would not be ready in time.

Covid-19

Also the present second wave of Covid-19 could make matters worse as firms will have to cope with that and a new system. The report says:

“The emergency response to COVID-19 has placed strain on local authorities, industry and supply chains’ ability to plan and put in place contingency arrangements. Disruption at the border maybe harder to manage if it also happens alongside further COVID-19 outbreaks and a background of economic uncertainty.”

Details of the Northern Ireland arrangements are partly in the hands of the Northern Ireland government. But report says: “Its ability
to take forward this work has been severely hampered by the ongoing
negotiations and, in the case of infrastructure, the lack of clarity about
the level of checking that will be required.”

Boris the Bodger

The final picture is dire. The report says:

“It is very unlikely that all traders, industry and third parties will be ready
for the end of the transition period, particularly if the EU implements its
stated intention of introducing full controls at its border from 1 January 2021.”
If the EU keep to its word and the government is as unprepared as this report suggests – the chaos with lorries stranded in new overflow car parks, delays and confusion in operating the system and computer systems failing all on the same day will be very bad news. Boris the Builder will become Boris the Bodger and no one will thank him for the mess.