Operation Yellowhammer documents warn of ‘No Deal’ Brexit delays


The new premiership of UK PM Boris Johnson has seen the government “turbo-charging” preparations for a ‘No Deal’ Brexit. He was elected by Conservative members with a clear a pledge to take the UK out of the EU by October 31. Although parliament has attempted (perhaps successfully) to thwart his plans so far, the possibility of a ‘No Deal’ Brexit either by that deadline, or at a later date, appears to be more likely than at any time during Theresa May’s leadership.

It has not been an easy start so far for the new PM. Following a leak to The Times last month, the government was finally forced to publicly release ‘No Deal’ planning papers, entitled “Operation Yellowhammer – HMG Reasonable Worst Case Planning Assumptions”. The warnings for transportation and logistics were quite stark.

On day one of ‘No Deal’, “between 50-85% of HGVs travelling via the short Channel Straits may not be ready for French customs … “unready HGVs” could reduce the flow rate to 40-60% of current levels within one day as unready HGVs will fill the ports and block flow. The worst disruption to the short Channel Straits might last for up to 3 months before it improves by a significant level to around 50-70% (due to more traders getting prepared).” It also warns that on day one, “HGVs could face maximum delays of 1.5-2.5 days before being able to cross the border”.

The immediate possible impact on day one is altogether unsurprising. In 2015, Kent Police deployed Operation Stack around the port of Dover, closing certain roads where 7,000 trucks were queued on the M20 with delays of 36 hours.

However, a 50-70% flow rate over three months starts to give some indication of the potential short term impact of a ‘No Deal’ Brexit. At the Port of Dover for example, a throughput of 2.5m HGVs was recorded in 2018, of which 25.1% crossed through in the final quarter of the year. How many of these were leaving the UK? An older report by MDS Transmodal and ABP suggests 47.4% of Dover’s trade with the EU (by tonnage) was exports. Applying this to the total number of trucks implies around 300,000 trucks left Dover with goods destinated for the EU in the final quarter of 2018.

The implication of a 50-70% flow rate therefore is a loss of somewhere between 90,000 and 150,000 journeys in the three months after October 31. Needless to say, in this worst case scenario, the supply chain implications of what is in practice is a major loss of capacity, would be severe. It poses further questions, such as to what extent can that volume of freight be transported by other means? How bad would the extra costs incurred by substitution be? How badly would imports be affected?

The document also states that “Certain types of fresh food supply will decrease. Critical dependencies for the food supply chain (such as key input ingredients, chemicals and packaging) may be in shorter supply. In combination, these two factors will not cause an overall shortage of food in the UK but will reduce availability and choice of products”.

It is perhaps the latter point that this is most interesting here and does not make quite so many headlines. The close ties between the EU and UK that have developed over recent decades have led to intricate intra-regional supply chains. The EU content of UK output of agri-food products is significant and the importance of the potential disruption should be considered alongside the lack of final goods imports.

The paper also pointed out that three quarters of medicines come via the straits, but that the Department of Health and Social care was working to mitigate these risks. It re-iterated that many of these products have short shelve lives and cannot be stockpiled. Air freight would likely to see a boost as a part of this mitigation strategy.

How much attention, if any, should be paid to these documents? It is important to re-iterate that these are ‘worse case scenario’ planning documents, albeit the definition of ‘worst case’ has been debated in the Commons in recent weeks. The document was dated on August 2, which is after Boris Johnson took over as PM, but before the “turbo-charging” of preparations commenced.

The very fact that these are ‘worst case’ planning means the UK is highly unlikely to see all such major warnings come to fruition, for the very reason that government and businesses are attempting to mitigate these impacts. Notably, on September 3, the Chancellor committed an extra £2bn for ‘No Deal’ planning. The assumptions on which the plans are based may well not come to pass either. For example, are the French likely to impose such stringent border-crossing checks if the alternative is chaos? Although the outcomes of this process are almost impossible to predict, the outcome of a ‘No Deal’ would likely to be not as bad as ‘Project Fear’ suggest, but not as good as ‘Project Bury-Your-Head-In-The-Sand’ think either.

Source: Transport Intelligence, September 12, 2019

Author: Andy Ralls

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