Members of the military speak with truck drivers at the Sevington Inland Border facility for customs clearance near Mersham, UK on Tuesday January 5 2021. Picture: BLOOMBERG/CHRIS RATCLIFFE
Members of the military speak with truck drivers at the Sevington Inland Border facility for customs clearance near Mersham, UK on Tuesday January 5 2021. Picture: BLOOMBERG/CHRIS RATCLIFFE

London — A week on from Brexit, the main road to Dover has been so quiet that officials were able to close half of it on Thursday for a litter-picking operation without causing delays for drivers.

But behind such placid scenes, many truckers are still warning of chaos as they struggle to adjust to the new paperwork required by Britain’s departure from the EU. Drivers are being held up for hours because they lack the right documents, they say.

With traffic well below its usual levels, the pain has so far manifested itself out of sight at factory gates and truckers’ depots. It’s likely to spread to the ports as activity rebounds in coming days, according to seven firms interviewed by Bloomberg.

“It’s an absolute mess,” said David Zaccheo, operations manager at Alcaline UK, whose fleet of 145 vehicles shuttles goods between Britain and the EU. “What’s going to happen next week? We’re not even that busy at the moment.”

Zaccheo said his firm has had vehicles stuck in Italy since Monday because of a lack of correct transit documents. In another case, a trailer destined for Milan had to wait for two days in the UK before it could move because it didn’t have the right paperwork, he said.

Faced with the threat of chaos at the border in the weeks after Brexit, many firms decided to stockpile goods or delay deliveries, leaving Dover eerily quiet. Traffic through the port is down 85% from its 2019 average. With the industry expecting activity to pick up in coming days, Britain faces the first major test of its Brexit readiness.

The cabinet office, the government department responsible for Brexit preparations, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

While the UK may have struck a trade deal with the EU avoiding tariffs and quotas, companies are facing new frictions affecting cross-border trade. Firms now have to fill in forms such as customs declarations and export health certificates that weren’t required when Britain was a member of the bloc. The problem, some logistics firms say, is many customers don’t understand what documents are required.

Ellis Blackham, an account manager at JJX Logistics, a firm based in Kingswinford that moves goods from the UK to the EU, said it took six hours — at least three times longer than usual — to load one of its trucks up with pharmaceutical products bound for Germany because the customer didn’t have the correct paperwork.

Massively confused

“It’s a nightmare,” Blackham said. “It starts right from the top and goes all the way down, the level of confusion.”

He said another company had sent them a pallet of manufactured goods to be shipped to France, but it had provided no accompanying documents. The company was surprised when told the goods could not be sent, Blackham said.

“The customers are massively confused about what’s needed,” he said. “I don’t expect it to be until March at least before people familiarise themselves.”

Bowker Group, a Preston-based company that moves freight into the EU, said it had a trailer of chemicals stuck on a quay in Belgium for more than two days this week because of confusion over who was responsible for obtaining the customs clearance.

“It’s firefighting all the time at the moment,” said Jason Tiffen, international operations manager at Bowker. “Customs clearance agents are overstretched and under-resourced.”

Customs agents

The industry has long been warning of a shortage of trained staff to fill out the extra 400-million customs declarations that will be required each year for goods moving between Britain and the EU at a cost of about £13bn. 

The Customs Clearance Consortium, which is helping to run a programme backed by the UK government to assist traders with the forms, told customers this week there is still a “huge shortage” of agents.

“The first few days of the new rules have been very tough,” according to the note by Robert Hardy, the consortium’s co-founder. “There are so many new processes and a massively steep learning curve.”

The UK’s fishing sector, which has been identified by the government as a major beneficiary of Brexit, is one of the worst-hit by new bureaucracy, requiring forms such as catch certificates and health documents issued by a vet to be able to sell to the EU, its biggest export market.

Scottish fishermen have been told to catch fewer fish because of problems exporting their catch to the EU. “We’re now advising the catching sector to ease up,” said Jimmy Buchan, CEO of the Scottish Seafood Association, after reporting that trucks carrying fish were facing four-hour waits. “We can’t guarantee we’ll get it into the marketplace.”


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