It’s D-day – or rather B-day – for the government’s Brexit border checks. But rather than eliciting much-needed publicity around the safety of our borders, the rollout of the Border Target Operating Model (BTOM) – the post-Brexit trade strategy that’s already been postponed five times over the past three years – has instead garnered a fair bit of criticism.

“Insanity! Crippling costs, confused policies,” blasted the Fresh Produce Consortium’s Nigel Jenney. “The government is sleepwalking into a food security crisis!”

It may sound quite dramatic, but this is coming from one of the biggest food trade bodies in the country, and there is certainly some truth to it. But how exactly did we get to this point?

It’s worth noting the new requirements come more than three years after the UK officially left the European Union. The government has claimed that each delay was with business in mind – to allow industry to prepare and to avoid unnecessary cost pressures amid what is already a challenging economic environment.

Meanwhile, the EU has had full checks on British exports in place since January 2021. So there has clearly been an imbalance in the way UK–EU trade has taken place over the past few years – not just financially speaking, but also from a biosecurity point of view. Most goods from the bloc have just been able to enter the country without undergoing any checks.

The industry largely understands and supports this. The current revolt is mainly around the costs associated with the BTOM’s physical checks on many meat, dairy and plant products coming from the EU to the UK, which went live at midnight.

How will Brexit Britain feed itself?

In order to help fund the new Border Control Posts (BCPs) erected for the inspections, government set a levy of up to £145 on all consignments crossing the borders via the Port of Dover and the Eurotunnel. The charge, only announced three weeks ago, comes on top of other port authority fees.

This in itself was enough to raise anger amid traders, but it’s really the lack of communication and last-minute announcements from Defra that’s resulting in widespread uncertainty and fury in the industry.

For instance, the fact that the facility expected to cope with the majority of the influx from the EU was only awarded Border Control Post certification a few days ago. Or that it took media to report leaked documents showing the government planned to significantly reduce inspections on some goods to avoid delays at the border for Defra to confirm it would indeed implement the BTOM in a “gradual” manner.

The uncertainty is such that even the Efra committee – which is meant to get a monthly update from Defra on the model’s implementation – sent a letter to environment minister Steve Barclay last Thursday, demanding to know what exactly is going on.

“We are concerned that this is a sixth delay to the implementation of SPS import checks in all but name,” the committee said.

Businesses from across the spectrum have been begging government to publish the exact timeline as to when physical checks will be scaled up, as well as details of the compliance regime underpinning the new charging system.

UK’s port infrastructure unprepared

Many also rebuff Defra’s assertion that the new import controls will have a 0.2% impact on inflation over three years – claiming the costs will be much higher. Smaller businesses in particular are set to be most affected, industry claims.

Additionally, there are so many solid concerns from industry around the preparedness of port infrastructure and labour force, that is hard to argue against warnings of major trade disruption.

“The root of the problem isn’t the need for checks, but rather the government’s failure to implement them pragmatically,” Jenney said.

This confusion only leads to price pressures, which “can cause further issues with shrinkflation and the availability of goods”, adds Marco Forgione, director general at the Institute of Exports & International Trade.

We know for a fact that when controls were imposed on UK exports back in 2021, the added red tape resulted in a 22.9% decrease in GB to EU exports and a 42% reduction in product types exported after 15 months. So, we have no reason to believe a different outcome will take place this time around.

For better or worse, this is Brexit in full swing. The extent of its impact will be determined by how effectively government will be able to work with industry to support a smooth transition. Judging by the latter’s concerns, the road ahead is rocky.