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Andy Wells

Customs control in the UK and Europe – What we learned in the first 20 weeks.


Having now experienced twenty weeks of ‘the new normal, we can now reflect on what we learned, how the circumstances have evolved, and what is still to be faced.


The Challenges

As anticipated, the first weeks until Easter were extremely intense, and dare we say… chaotic. Many exporters and importers were struggling to adapt to the additional obligations which they faced. For the transition to having occurred amid a national lockdown, with many working from home, communication was often extraordinarily difficult. Equally for clearing agents, processes and procedures had to be refined through experience.

Thankfully, the result of the initial phase has been to arrive now at a calmer and more organised state of play. 

As 2021 progresses, we will move forward with cautious optimism. There is no doubt that so far traffic volumes are nowhere near 2020 levels. We must suppose that the demand for imported products in the United Kingdom has not altered dramatically in those few months. It, therefore, seems to follow that, once pre-Brexit stocks have been exhausted, the flow of freight will gradually increase. With that will be a parallel rise in customs clearance requirements.

The year also exposed some larger hauliers, who were found to be unable to cope with the increased workloads. The result was that many significant names in European road freight suspended their services during January and into February. Even now, we are hearing about their slow recovery to anything close to an acceptable level of service. At this time, it is advisable for freight organisers to seek alternative transport operators, whilst the big-name operators seek to re-build their infra-structures.

Technical support operators solving problem with client communication in call centre

How are we adapting at Cargo Flow Agency?

At CFA, we have developed a policy to employ sufficient staff to be able to handle the anticipated increase in demand. Experienced staff are exceedingly difficult to happen upon. We are therefore fortunate to have been able to locate both experienced and semi-experienced people to join our team here in Newhaven. We have aligned that recruitment with our in-house training program for new industry entrants.

We are currently adapting to the requirements for meat, meat products, and plant health controls. All of a sudden, we are encountering different forms, new codes, and having to learn how to process these controlled shipments. A full truck loads of seeds has changed from a routine journey into a specialised clearance operation, in which we are fully proficient. 

The trade deal struck on 24th December 2020, which had the benefit of removing duty on the vast majority of UK and EU manufactured products. It did not, however, exclude the Rest of the World and in particular Chinese-origin goods from liability for duty. This has led to several difficult discussions with our clients. Many of those re-exporting ROW origin goods have not been prepared for the imposition of duty charges at the point of import into either EU or the UK. This has become a case of ‘learning the hard way. Therefore after we have been able to explain the impact of the trade deal, our clients have learned through experience.

As well as the removal of duty payments, the trade deal has also removed the need for goods to be packing onto heat-treated pallets. Not only has this helped to avoid difficulties in sourcing suitable pallets, but it has also avoided an increase in shipper’s overhead costs.

Whats next?

We now have to brace ourselves for the next, and hopefully final stage in the departure from free trade. The UK Border will become subject to customs controls from 1st January 2022. This had been expected to be implemented on 1st July of the current year. However, the combination of general delays in preparation and the difficulties caused by the Covid 19 lockdown, have brought about the very sensible postponement of the plan.

The implication of border controls is an extremely significant one. In brief, all of the cargo within a transport unit must be fully customs cleared before the vehicle can proceed through the port of arrival. 

Transport operators will face some sizable challenges. Vehicle planning will need to concentrate on the likelihood of a clearance being completed upon arrival. Importers will also have to ensure that, they are in a position to pay duty without delay where applicable. It seems certain that in the initial phase at least, there is a strong possibility of cargo not flowing through in the manner to which we have all become accustomed. Our analysis is that driver accompanied transport operations are likely to decline, in favour of unaccompanied trailer services. If that does become the case, the 2022 challenge for the transport industry will become that of sourcing sufficient HGV drivers to cope with the surge in opportunity.

The one certainty is that, if the industry is to flourish, it will continue to need the expertise of businesses such as Cargo Flow Agency.

Tractor-trailer on the road 18 wheeler truck

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