Michael Gove has updated MPs on government and private-sector preparation for the end of the Brexit transition period on 31 December. The short version? The twin demands on business, of responding to Covid-19 and preparing for a hard Brexit on 1 January, are currently not being met, with just 24 per cent of businesses ready for the planned end of the transition period.
Because Theresa May’s Brexit deal did not require the same level of new infrastructure as Boris Johnson’s, the government needed to embark on a hefty and sustained programme of compulsory purchases, car-park building and other initiatives in order to be ready to leave the EU on the new PM’s terms.
The government has not reached that point but has done a good job of closing some of the gap. Its plan to prohibit lorries from entering Kent unless they have the required paperwork is a sensible solution to avoid backlogs at ports and, with them, traffic jams across the county and the rest of the south of England.
Checking paperwork at ports themselves has the potential to create huge delays, because if your paperwork is wrong at that point, it is difficult for you to go anywhere. Having checks well before the border is a sensible solution to this problem. It is also a costly and difficult job that will require the redirection of police resources in and around Kent to patrol and enforce that new border, but if you want to leave the customs and regulatory orbit of the EU by 1 January 2021, you don’t have a lot of alternative arrangements available.
But that underlines the big and under-covered gamble the Conservatives have opted to make in ending the transition period on 31 December 2020, the date planned before the first cases of the novel coronavirus had appeared in Wuhan, China, let alone the United Kingdom. The UK could at any point before 30 June have sought an extension, but opted not to do so.
The uncertainty over whether we will reach a deal is something of a red herring, in that the British government’s envisaged deal – in which the UK will be out of the customs union and out of the single market – is not that different from a no-deal Brexit: there would just be a bigger logistical disruption at the beginning of a no-deal Brexit than there would be with a deal. The problem is not so much that businesses don’t know what to plan for, but that they don’t have the bandwidth to do so while tackling the pandemic. Delaying rather than leaving the EU in these circumstances is a choice the government could have easily made – whereas customs checks on the Kent border are an inescapable fact of Downing Street’s Brexit approach.