After three years of delays, the Border Target Operating Model is here. How does it work? And at what cost?

Brexit fatigue is well and truly with us. To be fair, it has been since 2019, when two-thirds of Brits were self-diagnosed sufferers, afflicted then by talk of delays, Irish backstops, and Theresa May’s doomed premiership.

The problem now is that it’s afflicting many companies too. And given that, as of last week, they’ve got a new model to learn for bringing food and drink in from the EU, not paying attention is a bit of an issue. Especially as the government says this new model is “significantly different” from anything that has gone before.

The government launched its new Border Target Operating Model (TOM for short) as a simpler approach to border checks that it claims will save businesses around £400m a year.

It’s been a long time coming, after three years of delays, but the Cabinet Office insists it is the “firm intention” to press ahead with the first phase of controls in October this year.

What’s coming?

  • 31 October 2023: Health certification needed for medium- and high-risk food products.
  • 31 January 2024: Trusted trader pilot kicks off with “major food importers”. Physical checks begin on medium- and high-risk food.
  • 31 October 2024: The UK Single Trade Window will launch, giving traders a single gateway for all necessary information. This should simplify the process and mean the same information no longer needs to be inputted numerous times.

While the later dates will be confirmed in the summer, the current plan is for a gradual rollout including an expansion to rest of the world goods in January 2024.

The government’s big change under the new model is that most processed, shelf-stable products will be judged as ‘low-risk’ and therefore won’t need export health certificates or routine physical border checks when entering the UK. This is a step away from the UK’s former model (and the EU’s) of checks on any foods identified to pose a risk, however marginal.

Not that it wipes out border friction entirely on these products. Businesses will still need to pre-notify officials of what they’re importing and only travel through ports with suitable border control posts.

There is also major confusion over exactly what will count as ‘low risk’. This comes from the fact that low risk is not just determined by what the product is, but where it’s from. “This means a commodity from one country could be in the low-risk category but the same commodity from a different country could be in the medium-risk category,” the government says.

This is causing consternation in the industry. “Everyone is asking: what does this mean for my product?” says one manufacturing source. “That’s the frustrating bit. It’s this detail that’s needed to actually plan and get moving on this stuff.”

Meat in freezer

Source: Getty Images

Meat and dairy are likely to be classed as medium risk

Commodity categories

But answers should soon emerge. The Cabinet Office plans to publish the categorisation of commodities by early May, according to Alex Walford, deputy director of border industry engagement, on a webinar this week.

For meat and dairy, things are simpler in many ways. There should be little confusion over categorisation as they will likely be classed as medium risk. This means they must still provide export health certificates from October and will be subject to border checks from January, albeit at a reduced rate compared to previous models.

The bigger issue is perhaps the timing, with new controls coinciding with the start of different labelling requirements on meat and fresh milk heading to Northern Ireland under the new Windsor Framework, making October a forbidding month for many operators.

To try and ease some of the burden on goods, the government has floated the idea of a trusted trader scheme for regular and reliable importers, allowing medium-risk products to undergo import checks at their own factories rather than a border post.

As it stands, such trusted trader schemes only really exist to ease customs checks, but the hope is it could be expanded for sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) controls needed on animal and plant products in January 2024 following a trial with “major food importers”.

Two types of scheme are posited – one for animals, one for plants – though some are doubtful of either’s plausibility. “The idea they are anywhere near ready for this is for the birds,” says Shane Brennan, CEO of the Cold Chain Federation. “There are two different proposed ideas for trusted trader, neither of which are fully formed. There’s no confidence they’ll achieve that in the timeframe.”

Dover Port

Source: Getty Images

The industry may be facing checks without access to a trusted trader scheme for over a year

Ambitious timeline

The timeline does seem ambitious. The government plans “an extended period of co-design [with industry] followed by pilots,” which it expects to run for six to 12 months from January.

This would leave the industry facing checks without access to the scheme for over a year – an unwelcome prospect, as suppliers say a trusted trader scheme must be launched from the start to avoid huge disruption.

Without the scheme, all goods chosen for inspection must travel to a border inspection post where they can be held for up to four hours while checks take place. “This basically means I’ve doubled my distribution costs, while the supermarket distribution and wholesale markets expecting those goods simply won’t get them in time,” says Nigel Jenney, CEO of the Fresh Produce Consortium.

‘We are going forward with a half-baked solution that will damage the industry and make the government directly responsible for fresh produce inflation’

Of most frustration is that while Jenney and others have been in talks with the government for at least a year, explaining why certain schemes are essential, “the UK has backtracked to a highly burdensome administrative process”, says Jenney. “We are going forward with a half-baked solution that will damage the industry and make the government directly responsible for fresh produce inflation,” he adds.

Even once it is launched, questions remain about how it will work. Who, for example, will be eligible? The government plans to make it simple enough that smaller companies can also apply, in recognition that similar schemes such as the Authorised Economic Operator are so complicated small companies simply cannot afford the resources to meet the requirements. But again, there are doubts. “If you’re operating a groupage model where you’re putting your goods alongside other businesses’ goods on the same lorry, I just don’t see how a trusted trader scheme is going to work for you,” says Brennan.

The problem with groupage is that if you have numerous loads from different businesses on a single lorry, it doesn’t necessarily matter if some are trusted traders. If some aren’t and they get held up by border checks, the whole lorry will suffer.

It’s taken years to land upon this latest model. Somehow, the government must find answers to some of the major gaps that still remain within a just a few months.