The frantic push reflects rising fears the end of the transition period will bring chaos at the beginning of 2021 – even if a UK-EU trade deal is struck – as companies struggle to prepare for a full customs border.
Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove has suggested there would be only “two to three weeks” of disruption at the start of the year, but logistics chiefs fear problems could go on far longer.
Freight companies have said have seen a surge in demand to bring goods into the country before any disruption, and customs agents report being overwhelmed by pleas for help from traders grappling with the rules.
“We have told our customers that the best thing you can do now is stock up, stockpile,” Jon Swallow, director of Jordon Freight, told Reuters. “The consequence of that is there’s simply not enough capacity and the prices are going through the roof.”
Mr Swallow said the demand had pushed prices up by around 20 per cent in recent weeks, and further rises were likely in December.
Fellow freight specialist Tony Shally said his Espace Europe had seen the cost of making deliveries between Poland and the UK, and France and the UK, rise by more than 10 per cent.
Along with the rush to bring in goods, companies are also having to prepare to deal with customs declarations. Sam Harris, operations manager at provider Freight UK, said it had become a full-time job just to answer the phone to new customers.
“Most know nothing about customs,” he said. “Everyone is panicking. We had a farmer on the phone and he had no idea whatsoever about what needed to be done.”
Britain’s logistics industry estimates that 250 million customs declarations a year will be needed for trade with the EU. While the government has provided £84m to train staff, many companies in the small sector have refused to take on workers before they know how the new system will work.
Those companies that can provide help with customs forms are therefore in huge demand. Chris Goodfellow, managing director of Locker Freight, has told his staff to stop fielding calls and only process emailed requests, after they struggled to serve existing clients.
“I don’t believe people were burying their heads in the sand – they had just been overwhelmed by what had gone on [with coronavirus] and when they realised that Brexit would still go ahead as planned, panic started to set in,” he said.
Bifa, the trade association representing UK freight providers, said some firms had recruited more staff. But others have struggled to recruit workers with the right experience, the organisation said.
On Wednesday Mr Gove suggested there would be only “two to three weeks” of disruption at the start of 2021. Speaking to the Logistics UK group, the Cabinet Office minister did admit there would “inevitably be some disruption”, saying: “Not everything will be alright on the night.”
Boris Johnson’s spokesman said on Thursday that virtual trade talks are continuing with the EU, but the UK team wants to resume face-to-face trade negotiations towards the end of the week.
Additional reporting by Reuters