Lorries disembark from a DFDS AS ferry at the Port of Dover Ltd. in Dover, U.K., on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2017. Customs checks at the border after the U.K. leaves the European Union could cost 1 billion pounds ($1.3 billion) a year and cause delays for goods being shipped in both directions, according to a report by Oxera, an economic consultancy. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg
Annual traffic through Dover currently runs at around 2.6m lorries per year. Several industry experts say the capacity for a sudden re-routing to other ports does not exist © Bloomberg

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Could Chris Grayling’s idea of chartering ships to bring food and medicines to the UK possibly work?

After Tuesday’s cabinet meeting, where the transport secretary raised the plan as an option in a no-deal Brexit, the question is on the minds of many in the shipping and freight industries.

And judging by a few conversations this morning, the reaction is largely one of wry laughter and the shaking of heads.

As Peter Macswiney, a key figure in Britain’s Joint Customs Consultative Committee (a group of nearly 20 trade bodies) puts it: “It’s another example of another high level plan devised by someone who doesn’t know how things work.”

To recap: the FT reports that Mr Grayling warned colleagues that, in the event of no deal, the Dover-Calais route could run at only 12-25 per cent of normal capacity for up to six months.

This massive decline in capacity could arise if France, after a no-deal outcome, took a rigorous view about the need to check incoming goods at the Calais end.

That, in turn, could see a clogging up of the Dover-Calais artery for months, endangering the supply of food and medicine to the UK.

Mr Grayling has therefore discussed with colleagues the idea of chartering ships to bring supplies into other ports.

ITV’s Robert Peston adds further detail, saying the plan — dubbed “Government Owned or Operated Logistics” — aims to bring vital imports to other ports such as the Port of London, Tilbury and Liverpool.

It all sounds very determined. But Mr Macswiney, and other figures in freight management, list at least three major problems with the whole idea.

First, where is Mr Grayling going to find the ships? “It’s not as though there are lots of ships out there just waiting to be chartered,” says one person in the freight industry. “And remember, these need to be ships that can replicate the work done by roll-on roll-off ferries. They are not easy to find.”

Secondly, how easily could the massive volumes that go through the Dover straits be handled by other UK ports?

As this report shows: annual traffic through Dover currently runs at around 2.6m lorries per year. Annual traffic through London docks is 12,700 lorries; through Liverpool it is 125,000; through Harwich it is 180,000. Several industry experts say the capacity for a sudden re-routing just is not there.

Third, where will the government find all the UK-based lorry drivers it will need?

Under Mr Grayling’s proposal, the UK will not be relying on international lorry drivers to carry goods to final destinations in Britain. So, once a trailer arrives at, say Liverpool, the government needs to find a UK-based lorry driver who can take the goods wherever necessary.

The trouble is that Britain has a drastic shortage of lorry drivers, with haulage companies currently saying they need to fill45,000 existing vacancies.

Of course, many hard Brexiters argue that this whole problem will never arise, because the French government will not impose controls at Calais.

And they have a point. The French government’s recent impact statement on Brexit reported that the UK is the third-largest destination for French agri-food products in the world, with annual exports to the UK worth €4.7bn per year. It is hard to believe that President Emmanuel Macron would want to damage his own agricultural sector.

But the critical point is that the British government cannot be sure what Mr Macron will do. Instead, two factors — the strategic vulnerability of Dover and the lack of serious no-deal planning by this government — have given the French a huge advantage in the final stage of the Brexit talks and their aftermath.

The Grayling plan looks like a valuable piece of contingency. But it is, in many ways, a revelation of just how dire a situation the UK is now in.

Further reading

The UK border: preparedness for EU exit

“If there is no withdrawal agreement, the government has recognised that the border will be ‘less than optimal’. We agree with this assessment, and it may take some time for a fully functioning border to be put in place. Individuals and businesses will feel the impact of a sub-optimal border to varying degrees. The government is putting in place coping responses where it can. How effective they will be remains to be seen.” (Today’s National Audit Office report)

Brexit has already hurt EU and non-EU exports by up to 13%

“If British exports sold can buy fewer imports, that translates to falling living standards at home, as imported goods rise faster in price than wages. Hence, Britain has lost a significant share in global markets (in terms of value) due to the uncertainties around Brexit, and is already poorer as a result.” (Terence Huw Edwards, senior lecturer in economics, Loughborough University, Christian Soegaard, lecturer in economics, University of Warwick, Mustapha Douch, research fellow in economics, Aston University, on The Conversation)

How much regulatory divergence can we have within the UK?

“It might make sense to devolve regulations for agri-food and energy to Northern Ireland and allow those areas to remain in alignment with the EU, while running a different regime in the rest of the UK.” (Henry Newman, director of Open Europe)

Hard numbers

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The pound was under pressure on Wednesday, falling to a six-week low as currency traders braced themselves for new developments on the Brexit front. Sterling fell as much as 0.6 per cent to $1.2902, the lowest level since September 10. The currency is down 4.5 per cent on the year, and has fallen 10 per cent since its peak this year in May.

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