After a record monthly fall in January, the UK’s exports to the EU are unlikely to recover by the summer due to a lack of trained customs agents, industry groups have warned.
On Friday, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that UK exports to the EU collapsed 40% in the first month of new rules and checks for exports to the EU following the end of the transition period.
The government also postponed the introduction of controls for imports last week amid fears that importers – particularly in the agri-foods sector – were not ready.
More customs agents needed
Rod McKenzie, head of public affairs at the Road Haulage Association, told the Guardian that a lack of customs agents in the UK meant exporters had little access to the support needed to comply with the new rules – including the requirement to complete customs declarations.
He repeated estimates from last year that around 50,000 agents are needed to support previous volumes of trade between the UK and EU.
“Judging by our own experience of customs agents, they are swamped with calls and turning away business, which is ridiculous when we have had four years to sort this out,” he said.
In response the government said that £80m was provided last year in grant funding towards training, software and recruitment to prepare the sector ahead of the end of the transition period.
“Recent research has shown the sector expected to see a near fourfold increase in their ability to process declarations and that there are intermediary businesses who have spare capacity,” a spokesman told the Guardian.
Temporary or permanent?
A survey by the Institute of Directors has found that nearly a fifth of companies that traded with the EU last year have stopped doing so in 2021 due to the new rules, City AM reports.
Of the 17% who said that their organisations had halted EU trade in January, 48% said that this was temporary and 42% said it was permanent.
Among the 77% of IoD members who trade internationally in some form, just over a quarter indicate they have actively increased or plan to pursue more opportunities with non-EU markets in light of Brexit.
Lord Frost, the cabinet minister responsible for Britain’s relationship with the EU, tweeted that the dramatic January figures needed to be treated with “caution”.
He said they were due to a “unique combination of factors” and that effects were now “starting to unwind”.
Overall freight volumes had been “back to their normal levels for over a month now”, he added.