Britain’s formal ties with the EU end at 11pm UK time on New Year’s Eve, with ministers fearing that the historic break in trade relations could lead to disruption at ports in the first week of January.
In spite of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s “zero tariff, zero quota” trade deal with the EU, there will still be a wave of new bureaucracy and checks facing any company wishing to do business between Britain and the EU.
The UK’s exit from the bloc’s customs union and single market means that new “non tariff barriers” will add what HM Revenue & Customs estimates will be £7bn of bureaucracy to the costs of doing business with the EU.
Mr Johnson was due to mark the end of the post-Brexit transition period — which expired at midnight Brussels time — with his family in Number 10, but at the ports the real impact of Brexit was about to be felt.
Ministers hope that months of government preparation will minimise disruption, but there have been estimates that as many as 50 per cent of SMEs are not ready for the new paperwork involved in trading with the EU.
Michael Gove, Cabinet Office minister, has operated on a “reasonable worst-case scenario” that only 30 per cent of trucks will arrive at the port of Dover or the Eurotunnel terminal at Folkestone with the right documents, with the risk of queues of 7,000 trucks.
Mr Gove hopes that the first few days of the new arrangement will work smoothly: few trucks are expected to cross the Channel over the new year holiday and there has been some Brexit stockpiling in recent weeks.
However, officials believe the real test will come on January 4 when business comes back to life in Britain and the EU after the Christmas and New Year break. Mr Gove admitted this month there would be “bumpy moments”.
Matthew Fell, CBI chief UK policy director, said businesses were still not aware of exactly what awaited them and how each EU member state would police the new rules on day one.
“Authorities can help by relying on pragmatism rather than penalties,” Mr Fell said. “Honest mistakes should be coached, not penalised in the coming weeks.”
To manage potential problems Mr Gove has issued an edict that hauliers heading for the EU must show they have the right paperwork before they can be issued with a “Kent Access Permit” to enter the English coastal county.
Some 450 so-called “Kermits” have been issued for January 1 — indicating very low levels of freight movements are expected on New Year’s Day itself. The new system will be enforced with number plate recognition cameras, backed up with £300 fines for those without the permit. Lorries without one can be hauled off the road and sent back to their depot.
Lorries will also require a “movement reference number” to board a ferry or rail shuttle. French authorities will conduct risk assessments to decide which trucks should be checked when they arrive in France.
Despite the new system of permits and controls, ministers nevertheless fear that a lack of business readiness could still lead to trucks being turned away from the ports, quickly leading to disruption.
Two emergency lorry parks at Manston and Sevington in Kent have been prepared for use.
Officials recognise that the French requirement that lorry drivers must have a negative coronavirus test before embarcation will add another layer of complexity at what was previously a largely open border.
For goods entering Britain, Mr Gove has introduced a “staged model” to ease the flow of trucks through Dover and Folkestone, with full port controls for all goods entering the UK not being introduced until July.
New trading arrangements will also be introduced for goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, although the UK and EU have negotiated an agreement intended to minimise disruption.
A government spokesperson said: “The border systems and infrastructure we need are in place, and we are ready for the UK’s new start.”