Richard North, 26/09/2020  

The attention given to the Dover and Channel ports has rather obscured the situation in other UK ports. And, to judge from reports from the Hull Daily Mail, the problems are just as serious, in their own ways, for the Humber ports - and possibly elsewhere.

Going back to March, we see the chief port health inspector Laurence Dettman, responsible for Hull and Goole, expressing "great concern" over the likelihood of a huge increase in post-Brexit border checks.

This is the man in charge of overseeing food imports through the two ports, amounting to almost all of the 150 million kg which comes through the Humber ports every year from the European Union, destined for wholesalers and retailers across the UK. Until the end of the transition period, none of this is subject to port health or customs checks but, after 1 January such checks will begin to be phased in.

Last March, a new Border Control Post at the King George Dock in Hull was expected to be in operation soon but, said Dettman, setting it up had been a very complex business and had taken well over a year to come to fruition. "Worryingly", he added. "it has not been designed to cope with the potential massive additional number of UK Border Control checks which may be required from January 2021".

The Humber Sea Terminal at North Killingholme, which is within the authority’s North Lincolnshire area of jurisdiction, also had an enormous daily volume of EU trade, with an emphasis on food products of all types. "Currently", Dettman warned, "there are no suitable inspection facilities at the terminal".

Illustrating the scale of the problem, Dettman was one of just five inspectors who had to cover both banks of the Humber, with the assistance of one part-time technical officer and two administrative staff. Six month ago, therefore, there remained "a great deal of unknown territory to be negotiated during the transition period and to what extent the regulatory landscape will change".

By July, government preparations for border checks at the Humber ports were being described as a "shambles".

Port health officials had yet to be told where two new border control facilities dealing with imports on either side of the estuary were to be located. And they had no idea how anticipated the extra staff required to deal with expected increased workloads from 1 January were to be funded.

At that time, the government had only identified a handful of inland sites in Kent for new border control facilities. Local campaigners feared that greenfield sites would be turned into giant lorry parks, as spare dockside land in Hull was in short supply.

At that point, Dettman was far from happy. "The changes coming down the line in five months' time", he said "are the most challenging this [port health] authority has faced in its long history. From where we are now, not withstanding the situation with Covid-19, it's very difficult to get a grip on where we are going with this".

Dettman added: "I get very frustrated and animated because I just don't have the answers to a lot of questions all because of a lack government policy and clarity. The key to this is clarity but time is ticking away".

He estimated that around 20 physical one-hour checks per day would be needed on EU food imports arriving at the Humber Sea Terminal in Killingholme, while a dozen similar daily checks would be required at Hull's docks.

Killingholme had no facilities for physical checks on EU food imports, while the recently-approved BCP at King George Dock in Hull only dealt with non-EU fishery products. It did not have enough capacity to carry out the scale of import checks required in the post-Brexit period.

One of the solutions being considered were inland BCPs, but Dettman warned that this would cause another problem. The port health authority's current powers were limited to port sites on either side of the Humber. "Our jurisdiction ends at the port gates", he said.

Bringing the situation up to date, with only months to go to TransEnd, matters still have not been resolved. Inland BCPs are being seen by the government as a way of easing potential congestion at ports, but Dettman thinks these would increase risks to public and animal health.

Ministers say their preferred option is to base new-look border control posts - which have been dubbed "Brexit lorry park" - on existing port land with funding being offered to port operators to pay for necessary building work but, as yet, no sites on the Humber have been officially announced.

As well as housing UK Border Force staff, the new BCPs are expected to provide a base for port health authority officials and trading standards officers as well as hosting facilities for the Animal and Plant Health Agency to carry out checks on live animals and plants.

Dettman, therefore, is still concerned about the possibility of inland BCPs being established. "It is my belief", he says, "that such a move would reduce the established high levels of portal expertise and place at risk the controls which are necessary for the protection of public and animal health in the UK". The devastating foot and mouth disease epidemic of 2001 serves as stark reminder of such risks.

Discussions with all parties, on new sites are ongoing and it is hoped that firm decisions on the exact size and location of the new facilities will soon be finalised.

However, there will be "a seismic shift" in the way UK port health authorities will be required to enforce food controls from 1 January. Apart from the physical inspections, which will be phased in through to July, initial government forecasts suggest nearly 19,000 documentary checks will be required every year.

Dettman has submitted a £226,347 bid to the government to fund extra staff and training to bolster his existing five-man team. But he warns the funding being offered only covers a period up the end of March next year. It was not yet clear whether extra funding would be offered by the government after that.

All this, though, only deals with food imported from the EU. In abeyance is the question of food exports, which might be delayed by checks when they arrive at the ports of EU Member States.

Again Dettman is the man on the spot. He worries that this "could impact traffic flows within the UK if goods are stopped, ferry schedules are missed and, in some cases, products have to be returned for whatever reason". There are thus provisional plans to use the Humber Bridge car park as an emergency site for lorry stacking.

To add to his woes, fish processing firms on both sides of the Humber who export to Europe faced extra pressures because, under Brexit, the industry would be required to produce export certification for each consignment for the first time in decades.

It stands to reason that other major ports must be experiencing similar problems. This is certainly the case for the ports serving Irish routes, although there is next to no national publicity. We had a generic report from the BBC fairly recently, and one from the Guardian over two years ago, but not a lot more.

Local reports are sketchy, such as this one concerning Plymouth, but we get some hint of troubles to come with transport companies warning of "significant gaps" in readiness.

With so much else going on, and the national media obsession with London and the southeast, one wonders how much is not being reported. This very much seems to be a hidden problem, which may come back to bite us after January, adding another category to this government's list of failures.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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