Ports crisis as Brexit delays stall updates to IT systems

Laveta Brigham

Crucial updates to IT systems that will enable smooth trade between the UK and the EU from January are being delayed because of continually missed Brexit deadlines, likely heaping further chaos onto already struggling ports. After Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced Brexit negotiations would continue into this week, industry figures […]

Crucial updates to IT systems that will enable smooth trade between the UK and the EU from January are being delayed because of continually missed Brexit deadlines, likely heaping further chaos onto already struggling ports.

After Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced Brexit negotiations would continue into this week, industry figures said further stalling will make it harder for the software suppliers to build the web of systems needed to process freight after Brexit. 

“We still don’t know which tariff system to load onto our systems,” said Steve Bartlett, chairman of the Association of Freight Software Suppliers. “How much longer are we going to have to wait? Time is not on our side.” 

With talks between the UK and EU running past their Sunday deadline, it is now “virtually impossible” for the development, delivery and implementation of crucial systems to be finalised by the start of January, according to the Business Application Software Developers Association.

Bill Pugsley, the chairman of BASDA’s Brexit working group, said the software industry had been given the time to prepare for a no-deal scenario but it would be difficult to adapt systems to a deal at this late stage. 

“If we end up with a deal, software may not be able to cater for that fact,” he said. “We have a situation where people could have to revert to paper systems.”

The fact that IT systems will not be up-and-running in time for January 1 is expected to exacerbate the chaos UK ports are already experiencing. “It will make it worse,” said Pugsley. 

Felixstowe, the Suffolk port which handles 40pc of Britain’s container traffic, is already battling against a perfect storm of problems including global disruption to supply chains caused by the pandemic, PPE imports clogging docking space, a large number of staff off sick and stockpiling ahead of Brexit. 

Fears of levies and other administrative disruption after December 31 are causing companies to stock-up “like never before”, with hauliers reporting they more goods now than at any time in the past 30 years.

The chaos is also fanning out to smaller container ports such as Southampton, causing delays to critical goods trying to enter the country. 

Already, it has lead to Japanese car manufacturer Honda pausing production at its Swindon factory after complaining it was running out of parts. 

Over the weekend, Ikea was forced to apologise to customers after suffering stock shortages because of bottlenecks at UK ports.

A government spokesperson said the delivery of IT systems necessary for the end of the transition period was on track.

“We have been working with key delivery partners to support their preparations, and we will continue to work with them to support their preparations for the end of the Transition Period,” the spokesperson said.  

But Allie Renison, head of EU & trade policy at the Institute of Directors, is calling on the government to introduce a phased in approach to any new trade requirements, similar to the flexibility awarded to Northern Irish supermarkets which were given a “grace period” of between three and six months to adapt their systems. 

“Basically we’re saying, you’re not willing to extend the transition so at least agree to phase in some of the most complicated changes you’re giving business so little time to adapt to,” she said.  

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