Truckers shun U.K. ports to avoid Brexit red tape

By Stephen Castle

Beneath swirling gray clouds, Bryan Anderson leaned from the cab window of his truck to vent his frustration at the new paperwork that had already delayed his journey through Britain’s second-largest ferry port by half a day.

“It’s a nightmare,” Anderson said, explaining how he spent hours waiting at a depot 250 miles away for export documents required because of Brexit.

The delay meant he reached Holyhead, in Wales, too late for the ferry he planned to take to Dublin, and for the next one, too.

“I am roughly 12 hours behind schedule,” he said as he prepared, finally, to drive aboard the Stena Adventurer to Dublin to drop off a consignment of parcels for Ireland’s mail service.

Fear of hassles and red tape stemming from the introduction of the new rules governing Britain’s trade with the European Union that came into effect Jan. 1 led to dire predictions of overwhelming gridlock at British ports.

But, so far, the opposite has happened. Apart from hardy souls like Anderson, truckers are increasingly shunning ports like Holyhead. They are fearful of the mountains of paperwork now required for journeys that last month involved little more than driving on to a ferry in one country and off it in another.

On Thursday, just a couple of dozen other trucks stood waiting for the same ferry as Anderson in a vast but almost empty port-side parking lot. Holyhead is operating at half its normal capacity, and staff have been placed on furlough.

“It’s too much hassle to go through,” Anderson said.

After months of uncertainty and tense negotiations, Prime Minister Boris Johnson finally struck a trade deal with the European Union on Christmas Eve. So when Britain left Europe’s single market and customs union, it avoided the chaos seen during a dress-rehearsal border closure by French officials in December.

Yet the old system that allowed frictionless travel to and from European nations is over.

Despite claims by its supporters that Brexit would reduce bureaucracy, companies need to produce millions of customs declarations as well as new documentation like health certifications for food and proof of origin for a wide variety of goods. Shipments of mixed goods — like the parcels that Anderson was carrying — can mean a plethora of paperwork for drivers to cover everything being carried.

Across Britain, the impact of the rules has caught traders by surprise, setting off a chain reaction that has threatened some jobs and livelihoods.

Outraged over costly delays, Scottish shellfish exporters blockaded Parliament in London in protest. A truck load of chips destined for a supermarket in Northern Ireland was held up for two days as the truck company sought to prove the origin of the potatoes they were made with, according to a British lawmaker. And more than 600 truck drivers have been fined for breaking a rule designed to prevent congestion that requires them to have a permit to approach Britain’s busiest port, Dover in Kent, England.

Under the new rules, truckers must log their consignments with the authorities before reaching ports. Relatively few arrive without the paperwork — just 7% at Holyhead, according to the port. But that is because many are stuck elsewhere awaiting papers.

The new system has also raised questions about the future of one of Europe’s busiest trade routes, between Ireland, which remains part of the European Union, and continental Europe. The quickest route for trucks is generally via a ferry from Dublin to Holyhead, then east to Dover, and from there a short ferry trip to Calais in France.

Before the Brexit changes, that journey via the “land bridge” was cheap and reliable, required almost no paperwork and allowed trucks to drop off loads along the way. But that route has been obstructed by a thicket of bureaucracy, and many companies are opting for direct services between Ireland and France to stay within the European Union.

Whether this reflects teething troubles or a fundamental shift is unclear, and the changes have been welcomed in some quarters. Some environmental campaigners hope the drop in trade will be permanent and reduce the number of trucks crisscrossing Britain.

Port operators had expected a drop-off in trade as companies emptied stockpiles they had built in December in case there was no trade deal. The pandemic has also hit commerce and tourism, just as companies are adjusting to Brexit-era form filling. But there are fears that the hit to ports like Holyhead may have lasting implications.

“Given the choice, I think a lot of that traffic has switched to the direct routes,” said William Calderbank, port operations manager at Holyhead, which is operated by Stena Line.

Calderbank said that while he expects much business to return, some of it will not.

To add to Holyhead’s problems, it is also losing business to ports in Scotland and northern England that offer routes to Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, that generally require less bureaucracy. It now makes little sense to send goods destined for Northern Ireland through Holyhead and then by truck north through Ireland — a popular route previously.

Andrew Kinsella, managing director of Gwynedd Shipping, a transportation company headquartered in Holyhead, described how one consignment was held in Ireland for seven hours while officials questioned whether it should be certified as a dairy product because of milk contained in cookies’ chocolate chips.

Holyhead “is a ghost town,” he said. “You don’t see the normal steady stream of vehicles every day; you are lucky to see a handful of trucks when the ferries arrive.”

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