With only hours to go until the UK leaves the EU single market and customs union, only 450 lorries had applied for permits to allow them to enter Kent and cross the Channel on the first full day of Brexit.
Officials are hoping that the tiny figure – compared to the 6-7,000 heading to Calais by ferry and 3-3,500 on Eurotunnel trains on a normal day – is simply a reflection of low traffic volumes on the New Year’s Day bank holiday, as well as some hauliers holding back from trips to the continent until new arrangements have bedded in.
But it raises the spectre of significant disruption in the weeks to come unless there is a marked pick-up in applications for the new Kent Access Permit.
After the UK leaves the EU single market and customs union at 11pm on New Year’s Eve, any lorry entering the county without a KAP – nicknamed the ‘Kermit’ by drivers – can be turned around and sent back with a £300 penalty.
Automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras will act as the first line of defence against chaos at the ports which many fear will result from the sudden introduction of mountains of new Brexit bureaucracy in the form of customs paperwork, safety and security declarations and sanitary checks.
Government sources said they were “confident” that all necessary new systems and infrastructure are in place and ready for operation in time for the moment of transition, with 10 inland sites prepared to process queues of trucks waiting to travel through ports.
But officials admit that a question mark remains over the number of exporters and hauliers who have responded to appeals to prepare for the additional hoops they will have to jump through to ship goods to the continent.
The government’s “worst case scenario” envisages queues of as many as 7,000 lorries in Kent if no more than 30 per cent turn up at ports with the correct paperwork.
Officials believe that a large majority of major exporters – perhaps 90-95 per cent – have made the necessary preparations, but the figure for small and medium-sized businesses is not known. Many are believed to have waited to see what would be in Boris Johnson’s trade deal, which was not sealed until Christmas Eve, seven days before the transition date.
The HMRC’s support website has registered a surge in traffic in recent weeks and officials are hopeful that as many as 60 per cent of SME trucks will turn up with the movement reference number which proves their paperwork is in order and permits them to board a ferry or train.
But capacity constraints at both Dover port and the Eurotunnel terminal in Folkestone mean that turning round any more than 30-50 lorries an hour will automatically generate queues.
Alex Veitch of hauliers’ organisation Logistics UK told The Independent he was “optimistic” that the worst-case scenario would not play out.
But he warned: “It’s not a question of whether there will be delays, but of how significant the delays will be. There will undoubtedly be some form of disruption in early January. This weekend will be quite quiet but next week will start to build up as companies come back from holidays.
“We simply don’t know how many exporting companies are going to be ready. The latest figures we have from a survey in early December suggested that out of the 10,000 or so significant-sized businesses who account for a very high proportion of trade with the EU, around half said they were ready. That figure has to be 80, 90 or 100 per cent for things to go smoothly.”
A big concern, following the scenes of thousands of trucks stuck at Manston airport after France closed its borders over Covid before Christmas, was the lack of facilities for food, drink and toilets for drivers stuck in queues, he said.
And he said haulage companies had been given little or no time to familiarise themselves with new computer systems.
“It is essentially going to be a massive live testing exercise of several new bits of software and users who have never had to do this before,” he said. “It will be a learning curve for a lot of haulage companies.”
Any queues may not start building up until the second week of January, as companies have built up stockpiles of goods in anticipation of disruption in the first days of 2021, stepping up crossings in the weeks before the Brexit deadline.
John Keefe, director of public affairs at Eurotunnel owners Getlink, said that lorries with the correct documentation should be able to pass through without delay, with their details “pinged” to customs authorities in a matter of seconds by numberplate recognition or scanner and any inspections taking place in specially constructed facilities on the other side. The KAP should mean those without the right paperwork never make it as far as the terminal.
With huge amounts of time-sensitive goods – from car parts for just-in-time manufacturing to perishable food and couriered parcels – passing through the tunnel, companies are likely to learn quickly that being turned back is an expensive process, he said.
“We are very confident that the bit we control will work very, very well,” said Mr Keefe. “With the low volumes of traffic predicted over this bank holiday weekend, we have got all the time we need to iron out any glitches before traffic picks up again in the middle of the month.”
A government spokesman urged firms to make sure they have their papers in order before sending trucks to the Channel ports, to avoid being flagged down and fined by officers of the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA).
“HGV drivers that travel to ports in Kent without being granted a Kent Access Permit will be identified via ANPR cameras,” he said.
“They will then be subject to enforcement action including an on-the-spot fine of up to £300.
“For the small minority that might try to game the service, they will be stopped at the border anyway and fined – only adding to disruption for other drivers.”