Queues of up to 7,000 lorries will snake through Kent when the completion of Brexit brings border chaos, a leaked government document warns.
Exporters face two-day delays to reach France, with 70 per cent of trucks not ready for new checks to cross the Channel – including up to half on the busiest Dover-to-Calais route and in the Eurotunnel.
Hauliers believe the government is getting ready to blame them for the enormous disruption, on the basis of a letter sent by Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove.
“The biggest potential cause of disruption are traders not being ready for controls implemented by EU member states,” the letter reads.
“It is essential that traders act now and get ready for the new formalities.”
Yet the new ‘Smart Freight’ IT system for hauliers is unlikely to be tested publicly until the end of November, far too late for the transition period ending on 31 December, the industry says.
The turmoil looms regardless of whether a trade deal is struck with Brussels, being the consequence of a hard Brexit – leaving the single market and customs union.
The EU is expected to impose full goods controls on the UK from 1 January, stopping all freight without the correct documentation as the reality of Brexit bites.
The disruption is assumed to build in the first two weeks of January, but could last for three months or longer should France rigorously apply Schengen passport checks on hauliers.
“This could lead to maximum queues of 7,000 port bound trucks in Kent and associated maximum delays of up to two days,” the document said.
The letter also raises the prospect of further problems if a winter spike in Covid-19 leads to absences of port and border staff.
Mr Gove pledged to recruit 50,000 customs agents – in an enormous increase in bureaucracy, critics said – but only half, at best, are in place.
There are also huge doubts over the number of permits that will be allocated to UK hauliers, to allow them to operate freely on the continent.
Some in the industry have suggested the UK will have to sign up to EU rules limiting driver hours, in order to get access to its roads.
Richard Burnett, chief executive of the Road Haulage Association (RHA), said a meeting with Mr Gove last week had fallen “far short of our expectations”.
“We've been consistently warning the government that there will be delays at ports, but they're just not engaging with industry on coming up with solutions,” he said, responding to the leak.
“Traders need 50,000 more customs intermediaries to handle the mountain of new paperwork after transition but government support to recruit and train those extra people is woefully inadequate.”
A government spokesman said: “We continue to make extensive preparations for a wide range of scenarios, including the reasonable worst case.
“This is not a forecast or prediction of what will happen but rather a stretching scenario.”