In August 2022, following a period of Bank Holiday chaos at the ports, Yorkshire Bylines published an article on how travel would only get worse once the EU and the UK brought in electronic travel authorisations. These were due to be introduced in 2022 but look as though they will be put back until 2024.
In a redux of issues raised in that particular piece, I have recently crossed several national borders, all by ferry, some outside the EU and none at Dover. All have been problem free as the numbers embarking and disembarking have been small, fewer than 100 people but, at some borders, I have been required to show my passport up to three times before embarking.
One border crossing took over two hours from arrival to getting on the boat. It included sniffer dogs, several passport and ticket checks and my vehicle being x-rayed. There is no country in the world that will simply wave those not entitled to move freely across its borders. Yet, much of the discussion in the UK press over the past couple of days suggests that the checking of UK citizens should be a mere formality, if undertaken at all.
The reality of becoming a ‘third country’
The UK became a ‘third country’ after Brexit, in other words it is outside the EU freedom of movement zone. This requires border officials to check UK citizens have not outstayed their 90-day visa-free welcome and are not attempting to return to the EU prematurely, having exhausted their visa-free allowance. This requirement also applies to those entering the UK from any country in the world.
Proof of entry and exit is required, and this is done by stamping passports with arrival and departure dates. It seems such a simple and quick task – and it is. The border officer first scans the passport, which was always required prior to Brexit, and then stamps it.
In most cases the most time-consuming bit is the officer finding the right page for the stamp. Border officers are quick and highly skilled at ‘reading’ information on passports and the process of checking and stamping takes about 30 seconds but this is an additional post-Brexit 30 seconds, per passenger.
If there is someone like me in the queue who has a longer history of border crossings, who has travelled to countries with whom either the UK or the adjoining country does not always enjoy good relations, and whose passport was stamped in the wrong place by one border officer, the process might take a few seconds longer. These seconds mount up and it does not take long to cause a backlog.
A border crisis of our own making?
There are about three million people passing through Dover a year, requiring at least an additional 1.5 million minutes per annum in post-Brexit checks and at least one additional border post, along with two additional officers to staff it.
As the rate of throughput is uneven with fewer sailings at night, the primary pressures will be during the day as they were at Dover over the start of the Easter holidays. This Easter there were school parties travelling by coach, all arriving at broadly the same time during the day, and each wanting to disgorge 50 or more passengers in one go.
The UK government rejected a bid in December 2020 to increase the number of French passport booths at Dover and was warned then that delays were inevitable. Dover has additional problems in that it is not possible to expand its holding capacity within the port and this increases the chaos outside the port as queues build.
Brexit is the cause of the additional time needed; the government’s failure to plan for the consequences of Brexit (and denial that they would occur) is responsible for the lack of infrastructure to manage the problem. The introduction of electronic entry systems requiring additional checks will increase the problems and still the UK government, as yet, has shown no sign of any commitment to managing them.