It’s just over three weeks until D-Day – the start of documentary checks on EU food imports arriving in the UK. From 1 October, consignments of food and products of animal origin ranging from pet food to honey being shipped from the continent will be required to have the necessary certification to enter the country.
Documentary checks will start in three weeks
In January, physical inspections will follow.
Before Brexit, no import checks were necessary with the UK being part of the EU’s frictionless cross-border trading model.
As this week’s indefinite extension of the grace period for border checks under the Northern Ireland protocol has shown, life outside that model is far from easy. While most of the media focus remains on the stalemate across the Irish Sea, the same tricky issues are facing other ports around the country.
Under Boris Johnson’s ‘oven-ready’ Brexit deal, the checks due to come into force next month should have started long ago but were delayed because it turned out the UK was nowhere near ready to implement them.
The necessary border control posts had yet to be built and the staff required to carry out the checks were not in place.
Why were full Brexit checks initially delayed?
A six-month delay has bought more time but there is still widespread concern over how the regime will cope, not least because it relies on a new untested IT system with the UK now no longer part of the EU’s established TRACES online certification system.
There is also uncertainty over the volume of imports requiring checks.
Original government data supplied to port health authorities and port operators in 2020 on predicted numbers of EU import checks was used in plans for the construction of the new border control posts and for extra staffing required by the port health authorities.
However, new HMRC data now forecasts the expected volumes will be at least three times higher than first thought.
In ports like Hull, it means the port health authority having to triple its workforce of inspectors, vets and administration staff in an unprecedented recruitment drive.
Hull and Goole Port Health Authority
At the helm of the Hull and Goole Port Health Authority is chief inspector Laurence Dettman, a man with 53 years’ experience of working in port health. As such, he’s seen life before the EU, inside the EU and now outside the EU.
“The transition we face, not just as an authority but as a country, is an enormous challenge. Here we are, five years plus on from the referendum and we are still not sorted.
“It’s not just been a political nightmare but a very pressurised situation for all of us. It’s been a double whammy with covid and the EU transition and my team has been particularly challenged by both of those things.
“The transition from EU membership has created a situation that some of us in our worst dreams and nightmares actually did forecast. A lot of the food we eat in this country comes from Europe and was never subject to any import checks because of freedom of movement and so nobody checked anything.
“More than that, probably no one – including myself – knew what was coming in because there was no legal requirement to do so. We still don’t really know because no one has been keeping figures.”
The six-month delay in implementing the border checks he says, were necessary.
“Nobody was ready, the funding wasn’t readily available from central government and our staffing sources were not ready, not just in Hull but in port health authorities around the country.”
Full Brexit import system to be phased in gradually
In an attempt to ease in the new regime, importers will not initially be penalised if their paperwork isn’t completed correctly while only a limited number of checks will actually be made. In addition, charges by port health authorities for their work are being suspended for three months.
Remote pre-clearance electronic checks on goods before ships arrive in the UK are also being planned in an attempt to avoid potential bottlenecks building up at ports. However, that relies on the UK’s new Import of Products, Animals, Food and Feed System (IPAFSS) working properly.
Because most freight arrives in Hull on overnight crossings from Europe, the pressure will be on to carry out physical checks shortly after arrival in the morning.
“Being able to do the documentary checks the day or night before arrival is the only way to prevent congestion at the ports, let alone the local roads, and we are still having urgent discussions with the government about that”, said Mr Dettman.
“If we can achieve that I think we won’t probably have that level of congestion on the roads, it might just be extra storage capacity that is needed at the ports.”
Even so, he remains cautious about the new IT system doing what it says on the tin.
“We’re told it’s ready, we’re told it works but it hasn’t really been tried or tested yet. I am confident about it? I have an inbuilt suspicion that government IT mega-systems tend not to work as designed, maybe that’s me being overly pessimistic.
“I have to believe it will work as we switch it on and it does what it says. If it doesn’t, I’m not sure what the contingency is after that other than doing things manually, and that will take a long time.”