The UK government has ditched plans for border checks on EU goods when Britain’s Brexit transition period finishes at the end of the year.
The move was welcomed by business chiefs and haulage firms worried about trade disruption and delays on top of the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.
But it marks a stark U-turn on detailed plans unveiled just four months ago for checks, partly to ensure imported goods meet Britain’s post-Brexit regulations. The government had announced new controls to reflect Britain’s likely exit from the EU single market and customs union, as part of plans for “taking back control of our borders.”
The measures were intended to keep borders “safe and secure” by identifying what is entering the UK, ensure taxes have been paid and UK rules complied with. Prime minister Boris Johnson’s Brexit withdrawal agreement paved the way for the UK’s divergence from EU rules and thus a greater need for checks.
But a government source told multiple news outlets on Friday the plans were being abandoned in the wake of the pandemic, effectively admitting new policies will not be fully enforced.
Cabinet office minister Michael Gove announced the changes would instead be brought in gradually over six months to give firms struggling with the coronavirus time to adjust. The government has called it a “flexible and pragmatic approach.”
The Road Haulage Association welcomed the news, calling it a “sensible decision to relax post-transition red tape.” It tweeted that it gave “breathing space for firms recovering from COVID-19 to prepare for new processes — still unknown.”
Firms had been warning they were not prepared for a new regime, criticising a lack of detailed guidance and highlighting their focus on the coronavirus crisis.
Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), had said on Thursday firms were unprepared for their worst-case scenario of significant new checks and paperwork if no UK-EU trade deal can be agreed. The CBI dubbed the change of stance “sensible.”
There is some suspicion that the U-turn may also be intended to give the government itself more time to prepare. The Financial Times reports that only 4,000 customs agents have been trained in the past 18 months, when Britain could need as many as 50,000 to help firms meet new paperwork requirements.
The abandonment of plans to enforce likely new rules raises questions about safety, security and tax collection. Companies will still have to comply with new rules, but will know compliance will not be checked at the border and in some cases will have more time to comply after journeys have been made.
Britain’s plans to check EU imports were also announced partly in response to EU plans to enforce its own checks on UK exported goods. EU representatives have repeatedly highlighted the need to protect the “integrity” and security of trade within the bloc.
Firms may welcome lower disruption to imports, but may therefore face significant disruption to exports. Delays for lorries carrying exports could also still spillover into import problems if they are due to return with imported goods or traffic builds up at ports.