Richard North, 15/09/2021  

Formally, the nation was advised yesterday by way of written statements, one from the recently ennobled David Frost addressed to the Lords, and the other from Penny Mordaunt, to the Commons.

The plebs were then advised in a press release, telling us that: "The government has set out a pragmatic new timetable for introducing full import controls for goods being imported from the EU to the UK".

According to our wise and beneficent government, now the UK is an independent trading country, it was our intention is to introduce the same controls on incoming goods from the EU as on goods from the rest of the world.

The initial timetable for the introduction of the final stages of those controls was announced on 11 March, says the ministerial statement – setting the introduction of checks on SPS goods to start on 1 October. And, says the government, its own preparations, in terms of systems, infrastructure and resourcing, "remain on track to meet that timetable".

However, it goes on to say, the pandemic has had longer-lasting impacts on businesses, both in the UK and in the European Union, than many observers expected in March. There are also, it says, pressures on global supply chains, caused by a wide range of factors including the pandemic and the increased costs of global freight transport. These pressures are being especially felt in the agrifood sector.

Given these circumstances, therefore, our wise and beneficent government has kindly decided to delay further some elements of the new controls, especially those relating to Sanitary and Phytosanitary goods. The key requirements will now come into force on 1 July 2022, a further nine months' delay.

In the following press release, Frost is then cited as saying: "We want businesses to focus on their recovery from the pandemic rather than have to deal with new requirements at the border, which is why we've set out a pragmatic new timetable for introducing full border controls".

With that, it's come to the stage when one has to conclude that ministers in the Johnson administration couldn't even tell the truth if they were ringing up the fire brigade to report themselves on fire and ask for assistance. The lie has become embedded in the very fabric of government.

Unimpressed by this outbreak of "pragmatism", the Financial Times reports that Johnson's government has been "forced" to delay imposing checks on EU goods entering the UK until mid-2022, as it attempts to stop Brexit further exacerbating supply chain problems.

This, though, seems to falling for the Labour party schtick, which has it that delays on border controls were due to the government's inability to tackle supply chain problems caused by Brexit.

"This announcement shows what we have all known for months - that the government do not have a workable, sustainable answer to tackling delays and red tape at the border", says Baroness Jenny Chapman, shadow Cabinet Office minister.

Here, we see iNews go with this canard, headlining: "UK delays post-Brexit border checks on EU imports amid fears over Christmas supplies". The Sun treads a similar path, despite a view in much of the food trade that border checks would have relatively little effect on the supply chain.

The Guardian, on the other hand, goes for the Covid meme in its headline, reporting: "Britain to delay some post-Brexit border controls due to Covid", with the sub-heading: "Brexit minister says 'longer-lasting impacts' of pandemic on businesses have led to timetable shift".

However, this self-same newspaper also reports that signs that the government might have to delay the physical checks emerged in the summer when the officials told angry residents in Dover that plans for a giant lorry park for HMRC and SPS checks "had been radically downsized and would not be ready until July 2022".

It thus concludes that the government's lack of planning for Brexit "meant the necessary infrastructure involving border control posts in key ferry ports including Holyhead, Pembrokeshire and Dover has yet to be built". To this can be added Portsmouth while, even now, the locations of some border control posts remain to be announced.

On that basis, as I remarked yesterday, even if the government had wanted to go ahead on 1 October, it could not have done so because mechanisms for carrying out checks uniformly throughout the country simply do not exist.

Interestingly, when the government announced a six-month delay, from 1 April to 1 October – on 11 March – the Guardian then reported that the delay had been forced "because a network of 30 border posts being built to process incoming goods would not have been ready on time".

Now, though, even though the newspaper acknowledges that the network still isn't ready, it seems content to run with the government's Covid excuse. But then, last time the paper had business correspondent Joanna Partridge reporting. Currently, it has its real experts on hand, Lisa O'Carroll, the Brexit correspondent, and Daniel Boffey in Brussels.

The Financial Times, though, does allow some EU officials to "suspect" that Britain's border control regime is not yet fully ready for the new rules, despite Frost's insistence that the government is "on track".

Obviously enjoying the moment, one EU diplomat savours the irony. "They [the UK government] talked about taking back control", he observes, "but they are letting products into Britain without any controls at all. That’s fine with us".

That point is picked up in the Telegraph. It cites Ian Wright, the FDF chief executive, who complains directly that the delay "actually helps the UK's competitors".

"The asymmetric nature of border controls facing exports and imports distorts the market and places many UK producers at a competitive disadvantage with EU producers", he adds. ""Businesses have invested very significant time and money in preparing for the new import regime on 1 October 2021. Now, with just 17 days to go, the rug has been pulled".

Minette Batters, NFU president, reinforces these points, saying: "While our exporters have been struggling with additional costs and burdens, EU competitors have been given extended grace periods by our own government to maintain access to the UK market relatively burden free".

What nobody seems to be talking about, though, is the impact of a nine-month delay on local council port health authorities. In a way, this is hardly surprising as most hacks do not seem to realise that SPS checks are entirely separate from customs checks, and are carried out by local authorities. I even heard Damian Gramaticus on the BBC 6 o'clock TV news talking about "customs agents" carrying out the checks.

Unless the government comes up with serious money – probably running to several million - to enable local authorities to keep their inspection teams together, there is a real danger that, by the time the checks do come into force next July, there simply won't be the personnel available to operate the new border control posts.

In my view, the FDF and others are being rather optimistic about the impact of border checks on incoming food supplies but, if the staffing of BCPs falls short of operational needs, there really will be problems. And, one should recall, this also applies to airports, many of which handle considerable and growing volumes of freight.

Johnson's band of liars may have got away with it for the time being, by redefining the nature of pragmatism, but – as always – they are simply stacking up problems for the future. This one is set to come back and bite them.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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