UK-Ireland freight tumbles as Brexit bites

DUBLIN — Goods shipments have doubled with France and halved with Britain in the first month of post-Brexit trade, the Irish government announced Monday. The stark shift reflects the newfound difficulty of shipping goods between Ireland and continental Europe using Britain’s so-called land bridge. Truckers carrying EU freight on Britain’s motorways now face bureaucratic hurdles at ports in Wales and England that are making direct sea routes, while slower, the more hassle-free option.

In January, just 17,500 trucks arrived into Ireland from Britain aboard 390 ferries, an average of 45 trucks per vessel, according to a Brexit trade update from the office of Irish Prime Minister Miche?l Martin. That’s half the level of traffic recorded in January 2020 and a fraction of a typical Irish Sea ferry’s ability to carry more than 200 heavy goods vehicles each. Despite the exceptionally low inflow of goods from Britain, those truckers were required to provide 760,000 import declarations of various types — more than 43 certified documents per truck — to gain entry to Ireland.

The prime minister’s office said the lower volumes reflect “Brexit stockpiling, COVID-19 restrictions, new Brexit checks and controls, and the emergence of new direct services with additional capacity on European routes.” Those sea routes bypassing Britain have doubled in recent weeks, including a tripling of options between Ireland and France, where truckers often buy standby tickets in hopes of gaining last-minute space on mostly full sailings. France has begun requiring truckers arriving on Irish ferries, as well as from England via Dover or the Eurotunnel, to possess negative COVID-19 tests.

Ireland last week launched centers for truckers to receive free rapid antigen tests before boarding ferries at Dublin Port and at Rosslare in southeast Ireland, the closest port to France. The prime minister’s office said those two facilities already can test up to 1,500 drivers weekly. About one of every five trucks arriving at Irish ports from Britain does not have its customs, animal health, food safety or security paperwork in order, requiring delays of hours or even days before the vehicles are cleared to proceed.

“The challenge the new checks due to Brexit create for traders is fully acknowledged,” it said. Irish truckers trying to reach Europe via Britain are complaining of similar hassles. Last week they protested at Dublin Port and appealed in a letter to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to appoint an EU trade troubleshooter at Ireland’s major trade hub.

Yet authorities fear that much greater disruption is in store on Ireland-based trucks traveling into Britain, where many of the post-Brexit regulatory checks won’t start to be enforced until April, July or 2022. “Exporters are being urged to prepare for these changes now,” said the prime minister’s office, which noted that some Irish firms faced “severe difficulty adapting to the new system of controls.” It said truckers were often being let down by their clients or customs agents.

“It is absolutely necessary that everyone in the supply chain knows and understands their role and responsibilities,” it said. “It is the responsibility of the importer or exporter or their agent to ensure the required information and channels of support are available to hauliers when goods are stopped.” Firms trying to move goods between Ireland and the Continent were advised to shift to direct sea links and cut out U.K. suppliers and distribution centers if possible. It said the number of ferry sailings on direct EU routes had more than doubled to 62 weekly, including 36 with France.

These routes can hold 10,000 heavy goods vehicles or unaccompanied trailers. The latter option — in which truckers drop their trailer at the port for collection by another at the other end — has grown increasingly popular to keep truckers in their home countries, without the time-consuming need for sea voyages and coronavirus tests.  

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