By Kate Holton
DOVER, England (Reuters) – Trade disruption could return if British holidaymakers head for European summer breaks, the head of the country’s biggest port said, calling on the government to urgently reconsider funding to redevelop Dover to prevent long-term damage.
Britain’s passage out of the European Union was eased by a lack of tourist traffic to France during the COVID-19 pandemic, enabling port staff to process the extra paperwork now required for trucks to access Europe and keep goods moving.
But the government dropped a travel quarantine requirement for fully vaccinated Britons on Thursday, potentially increasing the number of vehicles that could descend on the south-west port over the summer holiday months.
A pre-Brexit trade rush led to 20-mile queues, but Doug Bannister, CEO of the Port of Dover, told Reuters the site had so far managed the switch to customs checks well, after Britain left the EU trade bloc at the end of 2020.
“That’s because we haven’t seen the demand for tourists coming from our facilities, as we would normally expect to see,” he said on a bright sunny day as a ferry departed for Calais.
“There will be longer transaction times and more processing,” Bannister said, if there was a rapid return of passenger cars to Dover, which was used by some 2.4 million trucks, 2 million tourist cars and 74,000 coaches in 2019.
Britain’s transport minister Grant Shapps has said that new vaccination status checks could also cause queues at airports and ports, including the busy cross-Channel route.
British industry had warned in the run-up to Brexit – which took Britain out of the EU’s single market and customs union – that the supply chains could be strained to breaking point.
Even the government said that some 7,000 trucks could back up from Dover if they failed to fill out paperwork correctly.
Instead, a December rush to stockpile goods in the country meant trade dropped off in January and enabled manufacturers and logistics groups to adapt to the new demands.
Dover, just 21 miles across the Channel from the French coast, had applied to the government for 33 million pounds in funding to adapt the port for the additional checks it needs to make, an application that was rejected.
It is challenging that in court.
Now it is asking again, and for more, to build increased passport checking capacity, to reroute some traffic and make it easier for trucks with the wrong paperwork to leave a site that is sandwiched between Dover’s towering white cliffs and the sea.
Dover is also unclear on what changes it would need to make, if any, before the introduction of a new EU security plan, the Entry/Exit System, that collects data on the movement of people.
“We handle 122 billion pounds ($168 billion) worth of trade every year, and that is significant,” Bannister said. “Now if that starts to curtail, then that’s going to be felt throughout all regions of the United Kingdom.”
“If the money is not forthcoming then we’ve got some tricky decisions to make.”
Bannister said it was only logical that the government should fund the redevelopment because increased customs checks formed part of the Brexit deal it had negotiated. He said an “alternative funding mechanism from government” was now needed.
A spokesman for the government, which has given money to the local area and built nearby customs processing centres, said it could not comment because of the legal proceedings, which it said it would “robustly” contest.
($1 = 0.7256 pounds)
(Reporting by Kate Holton; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge, Alexander Smith and Raissa Kasolowsky)