Half of trucks 'carrying only fresh air' as Brexit and Covid hit exports

Half of all trucks returning to Europe on the Dover crossing are empty as border chaos means British companies are unable or unwilling to export. The data comes from the Road Haulage Association (RHA), which warns that disruption caused by new customs measures and coronavirus controls is already damaging the UK’s trade balance. Richard Burnett, chief executive of the association, said: “Between 40pc and 50pc of trucks going back to Europe through the Dover short straits crossing are carrying nothing but fresh air – normally that level would be 15pc to 18pc.”

He added that transport companies bringing goods into the UK would normally try to organise loads to take to European destinations for the return journey to make the trip economical. However, fear of being stuck at the border because of complex new paperwork to take cargo into Europe or failing coronavirus tests were putting off hauliers them from doing this. That has been exacerbated by UK exporters holding off sending their products because they have been unable to navigate the red tape generated by Brexit.

The Telegraph has previously reported how some European hauliers have raised their rates from EUR1.50 per kilometre to EUR10 to reflect being unable to organise return loads, or cover the costs of being held up for days at the border. Mr Burnett also said the situation could get even worse as volumes of trade pick up and stockpiles run down.

Dover by haulage type

He added that freight handling firms are swamped with enquiries from customers desperate for help with filling in the new paperwork, but these businesses are already at maximum capacity and unable to take on new clients for several months. “This is going to seriously affect the UK economy unless some action is taken,” Mr Burnett said.

On Thursday the Chartered Institute of Procurement & Supply said that shops will start to run out stock “within weeks” if chaos does not abate.  The institute revealed 60pc of its members are reporting problems at the border that were delaying imports, sometimes for days. 

Paperwork problems

The warnings came as a Cabinet Office official said up to 200 lorries a day are being turned back from UK crossings into the EU because they have the wrong paperwork.  Emma Churchill, of the border and protocol delivery group, said between 3pc and 8pc of HGVs – between 100 to 200 vehicles a day – were being refused crossings.  However, the haulage industry has repeatedly warned that freight volumes are much lower than normal because UK businesses are eating into stockpiles built up ahead of Christmas and in anticipation of a no-deal situation. 

Dover by Cargo type

They also say that it is mainly companies that have the resources to prepare for the new paperwork burden or have perishable products that are braving the crossing. 

Manufacturing trade body MakeUK said many of its members who do not face such time constraints are holding off exports, meaning more empty trucks. Ben Fletcher, MakeUK executive director, added: “Many have simply chosen to ride out this period, preferring to sit on their hands rather than face the risk of goods being stranded and letting customers down. “Time will tell whether this really is just ‘teething problems’ or the new normal for getting goods in and out of the UK.”

One manufacturer who has held off sending products to Europe is Nimisha Raja, founder of Nim’s Fruit Crisps. She said: “We have stopped exporting for this month at least and stopped importing directly from the EU. The last thing I need is to be dealing with customs, documentation, negotiating the HMRC website and playing the game of risk with goods being held up at ports.”

Nimisha Raja, founder of Nim’s Fruit Crisps, has halted exports until the border chaos eases

UK companies could even burn goods they do manage to get across the border, as Brexit is generating unexpected customs bills for clients when they are delivered.

There have been reports of European customers refusing to pay the charges when UK goods arrive, leaving their British manufacturers facing the cost and trouble of bringing them home. Some have said it would be cheaper to ditch them or even set them alight, rather than pay return freight charges and face even more paperwork.  Adam Mansell, of the UK Fashion & Textile Association, said for some members of the group it was more cost effective “to write off the cost of the goods than dealing with it all, either abandoning or potentially burning them”.

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: “Thanks to the hard work put in by hauliers and traders to get ready for the changes that came as a result of leaving the Single Market and Customs Union, there are no queues in Dover, disruption at the border has so far been minimal and goods have been flowing efficiently.

“As flows increase so does the potential for disruption, and we are working closely with businesses to ensure they are as prepared as possible.”