Concerns have been raised again that several border control posts in the United Kingdom may not be ready by January when checks on some imports from Europe are scheduled to come into force.

Physical checks on products of animal origin will begin in January 2022. Import declarations start in October this year while all checks should be in place by March 2022. These dates have already been pushed back by the UK government. Exports to the EU from Britain have been subject to controls since January 2021.

Gary Gould, chair at the Association of Port Health Authorities, said several border control posts have indicated they won’t be ready by Jan. 1.

“What is the plan should everything go pear-shaped and not be ready by Jan. 1 when controls are supposed to be introduced? Our view is that all border control posts should be operational at the same time so if one is not ready, all are not ready, otherwise there would be an impact on trade flows and various other problems as well,” he told attendees at the recent Chartered Institute of Environmental Health’s food safety conference.

A lot still unclear
Port health authorities operate on a cost recovery basis as they charge for the checks undertaken which then funds their operation.

“Unfortunately, if you introduce controls at some point you need to recruit staff before and they need to be trained, so you need some funding to pay for them while they are going through that process and before the controls start and you get the money coming in. Port health authorities are still waiting for direction on what charges can be made. For example, whether to charge from October for documentary screening or will it wait until January when full controls are applied?” said Gould.

He said port health authorities do not record what the volume of trade is, but they need to know how much high risk food is coming through so they can staff border control posts appropriately.

“There is a requirement for veterinary oversight for products of animal origin but does that mean they are present at all times in the border control post when it is operational, should they supervise the checking of documents? Or will there be more flexibility? Those decisions are still waited for. Are there enough environmental health practitioners (EHPs) or vets to go around all the port health authorities? It is well known there is a shortage of EHPs.”

Imports of high risk food need to be pre-notified but the minimum timing is another issue.

“There needs to be sufficient time for documentation checks to be undertaken and selection of any goods requiring physical checks. Documentary screening is supposed to come in from October 1, port health authorities still don’t know how it is going to work. At one point, they were talking about using a central hub system, then they moved it to the Import of products, animals, food and feed system (IPAFFS) and now they are going back to considering a central hub again. Time is short to get these things shorted out,” said Gould.

“Remote documentary checks are being undertaken because of COVID-19 restrictions. There needs to be a legislative change to allow this to continue after restrictions have been lifted. This issue is critical to ports such as the border control post at Sevington where there just isn’t the facility to do documentary checks within the border control post, it would have to be done remotely.”

Like a puzzle with missing pieces
Laurence Dettman, chief port health inspector at Hull and Goole Port Health Authority, said it has vast volumes of a diverse range of EU foodstuffs coming in which are currently unchecked.

“A lot of this comes in on the just-in-time philosophy for deliveries were stocks are not generally held, warehousing is expensive, so a lot of it arrives in the ports this morning and is delivered to distribution centers and factories by lunchtime or this afternoon,” he said.

“We are looking at possible 24/7 shift working to enable checks to be completed, hopefully before arrival of the ferries in the mornings. If we don’t complete the documentary checks before arrival then we will have immediate backlogs.

“It’s like attempting a massive jigsaw where you have the four corners and large parts of the center missing, although there are more pieces being given to us now. UK port authorities have never had such a high profile but with that comes expectation.”

Dettman said it was important to remember port health authorities are part of cash-strapped local authorities.

“The charges we make on importers have to be balanced and fair and trying to set a charging regime is never going to be popular with traders,” he said.

“Government have made resources available for port health authorities for border readiness but that has to be sustainable, we can’t exist on a one-off grant or a two year funding package. We’ve more than doubled our workforce already this year in preparation and we will triple it by October. The new high volumes of checks, from none to the 1,000’s we have to do, will place great reliance on new IT systems.

“From Oct. 1 new documentary checks come in and Jan. 1 is the date for the start of the full checks regime. That’s documentary with ID and physical checks at the new border control posts which haven’t opened yet, they are not fully built yet. There’s still a lot to do, the six month delay has given us an opportunity to have a little more time to prepare but six months passes very quickly.”

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