EU's Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier in London, Britain. Picture: REUTERS/SIMON DAWSON
EU's Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier in London, Britain. Picture: REUTERS/SIMON DAWSON

London — Northern Ireland will not be ready on January 1 to implement the systems needed to keep trade moving with the rest of the UK as required by the Brexit deal, the UK National Audit Office (NAO) said on Friday.

The NAO, which reviews government spending, said that all UK borders will face widespread disruption when Britain finally leaves the EU’s orbit, even if it strikes a trade deal with the bloc.

“There is a risk that widespread disruption could ensue at a time when government and businesses continue to deal with the effects of Covid-19,” it said.

From January 1, exporters will need to file customs and safety declarations, even if Britain does secure an agreement. However, the NAO said ports now have little time to integrate or test their systems with the government’s yet-to-be launched IT services, and there are still not enough customs sites or customs brokers to help industry adapt.

One of the most challenging areas will be Northern Ireland, which will require some goods arriving from the rest of the UK to be checked to protect trade with EU member, Ireland.

The NAO said the department responsible for animal and plant checks now believes the systems and infrastructure will not be ready in time. It is exploring contingency options. The report added that the customs office has made good progress but that its work is “very high risk”. It is also looking for alternative options.

The plans for the sensitive province of Northern Ireland helped Britain secure an exit deal with the EU, and Brussels has said that a full and timely implementation is crucial.

While the European Commission declined to comment on Friday’s report, two European diplomats said that while certain elements are clearly not going to be ready, the bloc could live with temporary arrangements that guarantee strong controls.

Other areas of concern include problems with preparing transit that enables goods to move across multiple EU borders with fewer checks, and the software that needs to cope with an expected 270-million customs declarations a year.

Meg Hillier, an opposition MP who chairs parliament’s committee of public accounts, said it is incredibly worrying that, with two months to go, critical computer systems have not been tested and a key customs system needs to be rebuilt.

In its defence, the government said it has given £84m to train customs intermediaries, phased in paperwork demands for imports and boosted logistics for critical goods.

It also warned, however, that 7,000 trucks could be held in queues in Kent, southeast England, if traders are not ready. The Bank of England said on Thursday that GDP is likely to suffer a 1% hit from the trade changes, even if a deal were secured.



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