The UK government on Sunday (7 February) denied reports by road hauliers that exports to the EU fell by two thirds in the first month of the new UK-EU trade deal, saying: “We do not recognise this figure”.
Research by the Road Haulage Association (RHA), an industry group, found that the volume of exports travelling from British ports to the EU fell 68% in January compared to the same month last year when the UK was still a member of the bloc.
In response to widespread media coverage over the weekend, the UK government issued a brief statement.
“We do not recognise this figure,” the statement said, adding that “disruption at the border has so far been minimal and freight movements are now close to normal levels, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.”
In a letter to Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, who is responsible for the implementation of the new trade arrangements, the RHA said that it had “warned repeatedly that there was a lack of clarity over how the new arrangements would work”.
Last month, the RHA said that a 12-month grace period and financial aid were needed to support hauliers encountering delays and extra costs at the Irish Sea trade border where goods going to the island of Ireland are now subject to customs checks.
Prior to the trade agreement being struck by the EU and UK on Christmas Eve, the industry group had warned that that key government systems and infrastructure would not be ready in time, a claim that was also refuted by the Cabinet Office.
The Cabinet Office also stated that outbound and inbound flows across all UK ports were close to normal, at 95% outbound and 96% inbound respectively.
“The Port of Dover’s own data confirms that volumes are close to normal,” it added.
Ministers have sought to take advantage of the row prompted by the European Commission’s short-lived attempt to impose controls on the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines at the Irish Sea border to re-open the Northern Ireland Protocol which imposed the new border control regime.
In a nod to that on Sunday, the government repeated that there were “outstanding problems with the Northern Ireland Protocol that need to be resolved to ensure trade continues to flow smoothly”,
Boris Johnson’s government says that it has spent £705 million (€800m) on new infrastructure at its ports and border points to help smooth the flow of traffic, including 500 additional Border Force staff to ensure compliance with the new customs procedures.
However, the haulage industry and others have reported teething problems as firms adjust to the new trade agreement between the UK and the EU.
The fishing industry has also reported losses of £1 million per day because of difficulties and delays processing paperwork to allow them to export to the EU, prompting the Johnson government to announce an additional £23 million financial support package for fishermen.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]