‘Brexit: fail to prepare, prepare to fail’

PML reflects on a chaotic few months for the logistics sector, telling us how it has successfully adapted its business, and looks ahead to the next Brexit pinch points.

The drama associated with Brexit has featured heavily on the business agenda for some time, but over the last few months tensions have been running particularly high. Companies like PML, a global operator which specialises in the transfer of perishable goods, have been preparing for the UK’s final departure from the EU since March 2017, when the official two-year countdown began. But the constant uncertainty, amended timelines and unprecedented last-minute adjustments have not made for an easy transition.

The business reports 700-800 weekly truck movements both into and out of the EU since the final 31 December 2020 deadline and the adoption of the new required protocols has been fairly seamless. PML invested a significant amount of time and resource to ensure its customers were kept up to date with the new legislative changes. 

The 90 per cent of those that engaged with the company and took on board the need to prepare well in advance have enjoyed a relatively smooth shift over to the new system, despite the onerous amount of additional paperwork that is now required. However, needless to say, those clients that failed to pay any attention to the regular updates provided by PML have run into problems. 

Their cavalier approach has resulted in a flurry of last-minute questions and enquiries, resulting in unnecessary pressure on both parties. Trying to put in place systems at the 11th hour to generate the newly required export documentation, Movement Reference Numbers (MRNs), phytosanitary certification and copy invoices is simply not possible.

“Those customers that have had their operations adversely affected as a result of Brexit have to concede that to a certain degree this is due to their failure to prepare,” says PML’s sales director Nick Finbow. “However, the government’s handling of events has certainly not helped either. There has been a distinct lack of clarity from senior decision makers and it has been a real challenge to keep up to speed with the constant changes, even in the first week of January we were being advised of new measures.”

To provide further assistance to its customers, PML has set up a dedicated road freight division, managed by a staff of seven to provide a full seven-days-a-week operation. Part of this team’s remit, in addition to processing all the customs entries and Defra paperwork, is to help customers who have got the paperwork trail correct but are still being refused entry at certain ports.

“We’ve had instances where we have submitted the relevant documents as specified by the government authorities, only to be advised that we need to provide other paperwork,” says Finbow. “We’ve then gone back again with the original documentation which was suddenly deemed acceptable. On one occasion, a driver made three separate approaches to get through at Eurotunnel and it was only on the third try that he was given clearance. Clearly, there is an unacceptable lack of understanding and training at some ports, which is placing further pressure on the system.”

PML says it predicted the likely bottlenecks at the ports, which is why last year, it partnered with transport and logistics company FreshLinc to operate an HMRC and Defra-approved Border Control Post (BCP) and ERT (bonded warehouse) facility at FreshLinc’s Spalding HQ, to enable a speedier movement of product and therefore extend the shelf life of perishable consignments by up to 48 hours. 

The BCP was completed on schedule, with a planned launch date of 1 January 2021. However, despite initial approval by Defra and local inspectors, the BCP is still awaiting final sign off from HMRC and Defra. As a result, PML’s customers are unable to benefit from the venture that was specifically designed to overcome the constraints at the ports to ensure no breaks in the cold chain.

“Naturally this is a very frustrating situation, especially since we worked so hard to get the operation up and running within a tight time frame, says Finbow. “It took just five months to realise our plans of putting up 10,000 sq. ft warehouse with dedicated inspection areas. However, we accept that the current pandemic and associated lockdown restrictions have definitely playing a part in hindering the various government agencies ability to sign off the facility. We hope to be able to utilise the BCP, which is in easy reach of both Dover and Southampton docks, in the near future.”

The next Brexit pinch point will be 1 April when further Defra legislation relating to the transfer of fresh produce in and out of the EU is anticipated, resulting in even more inspections. Back-up plans are already in place but PML acknowledges that the company may need to once again review its operations when further details become available. “Fortunately, we are a resilient and forward-thinking business, so we’ve been able to continue trading throughout the pandemic and have successfully navigated the myriad challenges posed by Brexit,” Finbow says. “We are confident of our ability to deal with the next phase of operational changes and will continue to do our best to update and inform our customers as quickly as possible as and when further details are released.

By Nick Finbow