Lockdown 3.0 was preceded not by panic buying, but by the abrupt closure of French ports to all UK hauliers, by days of vehicles stalled in Kent, and by new negative Covid test requirements for drivers entering France.
While the first lockdown began with no chance for preparations, by now food and logistics businesses have had the recommended measures to minimise Covid risk to employees and operations in place for almost a year.
At a societal level, this time we have households more used to lockdown life, more worried about their personal circumstance and finances and buying less across grocery as well as not visiting cafes and restaurants. There is the added worry of new strains of the virus, but we also have the hope of a realistic way through the mire as the UK’s vaccine roll-out continues apace.
The biggest difference of all is that this lockdown is taking place alongside the abrupt introduction of the new UK-EU relationship. In fact, the effects of lockdown are likely to be masking the full extent of Brexit impacts so far.
The flow of temperature-controlled vehicles through the main UK-EU trading routes have been very low since 1st January 2021, but the visibility of this reduced flow has been tempered by the fact that food service demand has plummeted with the closure of hospitality and reduction in air travel.
As we hope for lockdown restrictions to ease in the months to come, if trading levels have not fully recovered by then, the impacts of Brexit disruption will be much starker and the ramifications will be felt throughout the UK food industry and by the economy as a whole.
It has been no surprise to anyone involved in food logistics that throughout January vehicles have been getting held at or turned away from our borders on a daily basis. Meeting new requirements for exports requires dozens of forms and processes to be fulfilled faultlessly, as well as buyers, sellers and the cold chain synchronising actions precisely. It is time consuming, frustrating and just one small mistake by any of the parties involved can severely disrupt the journey.
Common reasons for disruption in January have included pre-notification on the EU’s food imports system (TRACES) not completed, the driver not being able to produce a paper copy of the required Export Health Certificate or scanning the wrong barcode, and typos in the EORI number.
It is clear that there is more to this early post-Brexit disruption than paperwork errors. We have long known that there would be a phase of translating how the new requirements read in policy and guidance booklets to how they actually work with people on the ground. Enforcing borders is still a human endeavour, subject to communication challenges, whims, and inconsistencies. Businesses are finding that the same process can move goods through the border smoothly one day but see it stopped the next.
When the new rules are enforced on goods imported into the UK too in the spring, there will be new changes to accommodate. We should anticipate that this could coincide with a recovery of demand for fresh and frozen products from certain sectors within the UK if Covid restrictions start to ease within a similar timeframe.
The good news is that, with a lot of work and a fair wind, we can expect some of these early challenges to settle. Businesses and border officials will become increasingly familiar with processes and requirements, and in some cases solutions to specific challenges are being worked out as the UK and the EU both look to smooth the way for trade.
But there are more permanent challenges alongside those that can be defined as ‘teething troubles’ and the big question is – what now? We are keen to understand what this is all for; both the vision for future trade and the steps involved in getting there, but at the moment the UK’s post-Brexit trade strategy is very thin. As cold chain businesses focus on managing the enormous changes they are experiencing day to day, their Federation is working hard to elicit detail from Ministers on the medium and longer-term outlooks too.
The starting point for our new reality is that the UK food industry is facing a new and challenging barrier at the EU border. Recognising the barriers and facing into them is a shared permanent responsibility for Government and business. Yet I fear that Ministers and officials still seem to see their job as firefighting immediate UK EU trade issues rather than long-term provision. It’s Brexit as crisis management.
That mindset has to change, and soon. Having left the trading bloc of the EU, managing our trade is now a core job of our Government. From now on helping businesses trade needs to be a key responsibility of every Government Department but as yet we have heard very little about how UK food businesses will be supported in the context of new trade relationships.
I hope that soon in 2021 we will all be into a ‘building back better’ phase. Be assured that the Cold Chain Federation is making the case to Ministers that we need to know they have a clear trade strategy, and we need to know what it is.