Doubts over IT system readiness prompts fresh concerns over Brexit border chaos

By on 07/09/2020 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Delays in processing the paperwork needed after the transition period ends could cause lengthy traffic jams at ports, severely impacting supply chains. (Photo courtesy Oast House Archive via

UK civil servants are working to avert major border chaos when the post-Brexit transition period ends on 31 December, according to a leaked memo that warns of “critical gaps” in the government’s preparations and concerns that vital IT systems are still in development.   

The document, an official’s notes of a meeting with logistics industry representatives circulated by the Cabinet Office’s Border and Protocol Delivery Group, lists 13 risks to be flagged to ministers, Bloomberg reports. High on the list is the risk that crucial IT systems may not be ready in time and that freight companies will struggle to get to grips with multiple systems.  

“There are up to 10 new systems that haulage firms and freight forwarders will have to navigate from Jan. 1, including at least three being designed now,” the memo notes. “This is completely unnecessary and unmanageable with duplication and overlap.”

Among the systems still under development is the Smart Freight Service, a web-based application that operators will use to determine whether they have the required paperwork to be able to enter English Channel ports, with goods including essential supplies such as food and medicines.

However, with four months to go until the transition period ends – at which point Britain will either leave the EU without a trade deal or move to a new negotiated arrangement – logistics companies are worried that unless it is finalised imminently, they will not have sufficient time to train their staff in the new system.

Threat of severe disruption

On 2 September, the Road Haulage Association and other lobby groups wrote to Michael Gove, the minister responsible for the UK’s Brexit preparations, seeking an urgent meeting with him, chancellor Rishi Sunak and transport secretary Grant Shapps to address their concerns.

“We have visibility of the current state of preparedness which as it stands has significant gaps,” the trade groups wrote. “If these issues are not addressed, disruption to UK business and the supply chain that we all rely so heavily on will be severely disrupted.”

As many as 10,000 trucks a day pass through ports such as Dover and, according to the British Retail Consortium, about four-fifths of the food imported by UK supermarkets comes from the EU. Any delays in processing the paperwork needed after the transition period are expected to cause lengthy traffic jams at ports and severely impact supply chains.

“The fact that the whole system, the whole flow of our trade through the border, is based on the functioning of some IT systems that are yet to be built is a huge risk,” Shane Brennan, chief executive officer of the Cold Chain Federation, which represents specialists in moving frozen and chilled goods, told Bloomberg. “My biggest worry is that there isn’t a proper awareness out there in the industry about how precarious things are.”

A UK official acknowledged there are problems raised by the industry that need to be solved, according to Bloomberg. In a statement, the Cabinet Office said it has worked closely with the industry to develop its plans and will continue to do so. The government also said it is spending more on infrastructure and training intermediaries needed to handle the hundreds of millions of extra customs declarations that are expected to be required each year.

Northern Ireland

The leaked memo also includes a warning on the situation in Northern Ireland, which unlike the rest of the UK will effectively remain in the EU’s customs union after 31 December. The government is yet to set out detailed plans for companies trading with the province from next year.

“The lack of an Operating Model for the Northern Ireland Protocol, coupled with missing information on the location of inland checking points and even which systems particular ports will be using, needs to be addressed now,” the memo says.

In a separate development, it was revealed on Sunday that the UK government intends to unpick parts of the withdrawal agreement signed in January, including legally binding elements of the special arrangements for Northern Ireland.  

A UK government source told The Guardian that the plan was part of the preparation for a no-deal exit that would present a number of new barriers to trade from Northern Ireland.

It is understood prime minister Boris Johnson will put an ultimatum to negotiators this week, saying the UK and Europe must agree a post-Brexit trade deal by 15 October or Britain will walk away for good.

However, with trade talks already fragile, some commentators are concerned the move to override sections of the withdrawal agreement may cause talks to collapse. In a tweet, the Republic of Ireland’s foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney, who helped broker the original Brexit settlement, called it “very unwise”.

In April, former UK civil service chiefs – including retired officials such as cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell, head of the civil service Bob Kerslake and permanent secretary of the Department for Exiting the European Union Philip Rycroft – urged the government to consider extending the Brexit transition period in light of the coronavirus crisis.

The government did not do so by the July deadline with Johnson insisting that it is possible to negotiate a comprehensive free trade agreement by the current deadline.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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