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The UK border official that was until recently in charge of Brexit border plans has warned that technology cannot prevent disruption in a no-deal scenario.
The former Director-General for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, Karen Wheeler, said no-deal emergency plans would have to be stepped up but, although the civil service had done all it can to prepare for no-deal, chaos at Dover and the Irish border may not be averted.
The Brexit team of the border force was ready for March 29, Wheeler said in an event at the Institute for Government in London on Wednesday, but that preparation “doesn’t mean … everything will be fine,” she clarified.
Answering a direct question Wheeler made clear that trade at the channel and Northern Ireland is something “… you can’t mitigate and all you can do is cope with the consequences.”
About 6,000 civil servants were drafted in to work on no-deal preparations after Christmas 2018 and although “every part of government felt it had its plans in place,” Wheeler says, it was “extremely difficult” for British civil servants to plan for the effects of a no-deal Brexit in Northern Ireland because they were not able to their Irish colleagues.
One of the biggest challenges is mandatory health checks on animals and agrifood traded across the border.
Wheeler expressed skepticism about the conclusion of the so-called “alternative arrangements commission” committee, which believes that technology enabling an open border could be in place in three years.
In Wheeler’s view, “technology alone is not going to solve that border problem,” as it requires work on both sides of the border, while the European Commission has made clear that the UK will be treated as a third country, which entails “customs, quality of goods, controls and checks of agrifoods” from day one.
Wheeler also said that ensuring traders, road hauliers and end-to-end supply chains were geared up for any changes could potentially take longer than getting a technology solution.
In a no-deal scenario, Britain intends to prioritise the flow of goods at ports but, as Wheeler noted, “if trucks get stopped at Calais then after a while the docks will get clogged up and that will cause problems in both directions.”