Britain braced for queues of up to 7,000 trucks as Brexit border change kicks in

Queues of up to 7,000 lorries will start to build up at Dover under the Government's "worst case scenario" plan after Britain leaves the customs union on Thursday night. It could mean tailbacks more than twice as long as those seen before Christmas, when France closed its borders because of the emergence of the new strain of coronavirus. While officials believe that 99pc of big businesses are ready for new customs checks at the border, many small and medium-sized firms are likely to be caught out.

The Cabinet Office, which is responsible for planning for the end of the Brexit transition period, has capacity for 9,700 lorries to be diverted to holding areas. Drivers will need to have had a negative Covid test, as well as having a Kent Access Permit to enter the county for Channel crossings, and will also need to have filled in the relevant customs forms required by French border officials. Any haulier caught without a Kent Access Permit - nicknamed "Kermits" by drivers - will be fined GBP300, though Kent-based lorry firms and those who do not travel internationally will be exempt.

Cabinet Office sources said the worst case scenario of 7,000 lorries queuing was based on only 30pcof firms being ready for the changes, which is seen as a highly pessimistic estimate. As of 8.30am this morning, 450 Kent Access Permits had been issued for Jan 1. The permits are issued for a specific 24 hour period.

Drivers that travel to ports in Kent without a pass will be identified via Automatic Number Plate Recognition cameras and given a GBP300 on the spot fine. The Channel Tunnel's operators believe there will be little disruption because few firms will want to cross the Channel until the new system is bedded in.  Jan 1 is also a bank holiday, and firms in Britain and Europe have been stockpiling goods because of both Brexit and Covid. The true extent of the disruption to international freight caused by Brexit will not become clear until next week until the earliest, according to the haulage industry and ports operators.

The Road Haulage Association said that the first three days of every year are traditionally very quiet, and it is only as industry returns to work and goods become ready for export in the following days that traffic returns to normal. Rod McKenzie, policy director at the association, said: "It is only then that problems will begin to emerge. The new export form that needs to be filled in is extremely onerous and easy to make a mistake on."

He said that while the UK has indicated it will "wave through" freight, French customs officials are likely to "rigidly enforce" the new standards on consignments destined for the EU. With these checks taking place in the UK for consignments headed for Europe, this could mean lorries being turned around until the paperwork is corrected, causing traffic confusion in Britain. Mr McKenzie also warned of "invisible chaos" to supply chains. "We're going to have loads not leaving factories and depots because they don't have the right paperwork," he said. "That means there won't be the trucks gridlocked around Dover or gathering at Manston airport.

"It won't be the spectacular pictures of queues of trucks we saw recently, but it will be just as damaging."

Lorries parked up at Manston airport after France shut its borders

The Government has also been criticised for failing to detail what hauliers need to do to prepare for the post-Brexit environment. Logistics UK said the Government's final version of the "haulier handbook" spelling out the requirements was published only three weeks ago, and is now being rushed through translation for international drivers. The trade body also said the initial version released for consultation in the summer was "unclear", partly because it was not known what kind of deal, if any, would be agreed. 

Elizabeth de Jong, Logistics UK policy director, said: "The government's delivery of the haulier handbook, although delayed, has allowed drivers to be fully briefed on what to expect at the border, but whether there has been sufficient time for European firms to brief their drivers on what to anticipate remains to be seen." The situation is made even more difficult for goods vehicles or couriers carrying loads for multiple destintations, as each piece of freight will need its own individual paperwork.  There are already reports of freight forwarding companies refusing to take contracts that involves border crossings because the work is too complex and time consuming.

Ports are not expecting immediate problems, either, though expect delays in the near future.  The UK Major Ports Group, which accounts for 95pc of the UK's seaborne trade said such a "major system change at the border that's being imposed would bring challenges with the best of preparations, and that is not what we've had". Tim Morris, the group's chief executive, added: "We can't assume what we will see on Jan 1 is the new reality as the full suite of border controls on the UK side doesn't come into force until July 1."

While ports will work to accommodate the changes, he warned: "There are limits to pulling rabbits out of hats."

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