In its latest report assessing Government preparations at the border, the NAO warned COVID-19 had exacerbated delays in preparations and significant risks remained. Implementing the Northern Ireland Protocol and general trader readiness were particular concerns.
The Government was confident systems, infrastructure and resources required to run Great Britain’s customs border at “minimum operating capability” would be ready by 1 January 2021, the NAO said. But the timeline was incredibly tight and susceptible to disruption.
Little time left
The NAO’s report stated: “There is little time for ports and other third parties to integrate their systems and processes with new or changed government systems, and contingency plans may need to be invoked for some elements.
“In part as a result of the delays caused by COVID-19, there is limited time to test individual elements and resolve any emerging issues – ensure elements operate together, familiarise users with them in advance and little or no contingency time in the event of any delays.”
Concerns surrounding the need to implement the Northern Ireland Protocol were also raised. The scale and complexity of the changes, the lack of time and the impact of ongoing negotiations meant there was a very high risk it may not be implemented in time, said the NAO.
NAO head Gareth Davies said: “The 1 January deadline is unlike any previous EU Exit deadline – significant changes at the border will take place and government must be ready.
“Disruption is likely and government will need to respond quickly to minimise the impact, a situation made all the more challenging by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The NAO argued some uncertainty could have been avoided had better preparations been made. Had the Government addressed issues such as expanding the customs intermediary market, developing a solution for roll on, roll off traffic and upscaling customs systems sooner, this would have mitigated concerns, it said.
It added: “Government must continue to focus its efforts on resolving the many outstanding issues relating to the border and develop robust contingency plans if these cannot be addressed in time for the end of the transition period.”
Meanwhile, a total of 39 trade body representatives have warned many of Great Britain’s food firms plan to stop trading with Northern Ireland (NI) due to the cost of rules and regulations post-Brexit.