It could become the UK’s biggest peacetime emergency in almost a century.
Unless a withdrawal agreement is approved (or Article 50 is delayed), at 23:00 GMT on 29 March the UK will leave the European Union with no negotiated exit – and in a second everything will change.
Suddenly British goods going to the European Union will be subject to duty (a payment, for example on imports and exports), and will need to be checked for compliance with things like sanitary regulations.
Goods arriving in the UK from the EU could face checks too, though the government has said it will not do that straight away, partly because it doesn’t have the infrastructure.
The rules around things like fishing rights, air traffic and nuclear regulation will all change in the blink of an eye too.
The effect is likely to be a severe slowdown on the critical Dover-Calais ferry and Channel Tunnel routes, as well as unpredictable delays at airports.
Critical incident declared
An army of civil servants has been working on the problem since the EU referendum.
At the time of writing, around 4,000 had been moved into positions where they are preparing for the no deal scenario. As we get closer, another 5,000 will be transferred across to help.
On the night of Brexit, the government is expected to declare a “critical incident” and to start operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week in a “command and control” mode.
The Cobra emergency committee will meet at the Cabinet Office as ministers sit down to tackle the unpredictable effects of leaving the EU without a deal.
The Ministry of Defence has promised to make 3,500 service personnel available to help. Around 10% of these will be reservists. An order laid before Parliament under the Reserve Forces Act said that they can be called upon from February 10.
There are 14 military planners already working in other Whitehall departments.
But despite all that, the chief executive of the civil service, John Manzoni, still concedes that a no-deal Brexit could be a “bit bumpy.”
Transport through Kent
The biggest concern is that lorry traffic across the English Channel through Dover and the Channel Tunnel terminal near Folkestone will grind to a standstill.
To manage that, the Highways Agency, Kent County Council and Kent Police have come up with Operation Brock – a plan for parking up to 13,000 trucks.
The first 2,000 will park on the southbound carriageway of the M20 between junctions eight and nine, 6,000 more will be moved to Manston Airport, and if that is not enough then the M26 will be used to hold another 5,000.
The government has given Kent County Council £28.8m to improve Manston airfield, to strengthen the roads around it (such as the A249, A256 and the A299), and for new signs and traffic signals,
This way it is hoped that the county of Kent will not itself stop functioning, as happened during a strike at Calais in 2015.
The government expects there will be “significantly reduced access across the short straits” for up to six months.
Other shipping routes
If Dover and Folkestone suddenly become slow and unpredictable ways of getting goods in and out of the country, the government is hoping other routes to Europe will take more of the traffic.
Saying “a situation of extreme urgency exists”, the Department for Transport is paying a total of £107.7m to three ferry companies to run extra ships.
Brittany Ferries will increase sailings for six weeks on the Portsmouth-Le Havre, Poole-Cherbourg and Plymouth-Roscoff routes.
DFDS will increase the number of crossings on some of its routes.
A new company – Seaborne Freight – has been asked to run ships between Ramsgate and Ostend, though it is not clear that this will happen in time
In the tender documents, the DfT wrote of “the possibility of severe congestion at and around UK ports from 29 March 2019, caused by increased border checks by European Union Member States, and consequently a significant reduction in capacity at ports on the Short Straits.”
It added: “It is anticipated that this could, without further intervention to secure additional ferry capacity, cause delivery of critical goods to be delayed and cause significant wider disruption to the UK economy and to the road network in Kent.”
Port companies such as Associated British Ports (ABP) have been improving the infrastructure at ports away from Dover in anticipation of increased traffic.
Another major problem might have been the supply of medicines, but the Department of Health has developed extensive contingency plans.
It has started to stockpile six weeks’ worth of prescription-only and pharmacy medicines.
It has signed £1m of contracts for refrigerated storage for approximately 5,000 pallets of medicine and another £9m for what is called “ambient storage”, that is storage at room temperature
It has also been agreed in Whitehall that medicines and medical products would be given priority on freight routes, though it is not clear how that would work.
The Department of Health has also made plans to air freight items like medical radioactive isotopes (used in radiotherapy and diagnostic tests) that have a very short shelf-life.
The same problem arises when it comes to food.
Food manufacturers have been stockpiling ingredients, but there is starting to be a shortage of warehouse space – both ambient (room-temperature) storage, and chilled storage.
Not many people predict a severe food crisis (the UK is about 60% self-sufficient on food), but it is likely that some fresh foods that come in on short timetables from the European Union will become scarcer.
Once again, the effects are likely to be unpredictable.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is recruiting for an EU Exit Emergencies Centre (EUXE) which will run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to manage “any situations that arise if the UK leaves the European Union without a deal”.
There are concerns too about what to do with excess fresh food and live animals produced in the UK if it cannot be exported in time.
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There have been concerns that some people – angry at a no-deal exit from the EU, or at the effects of that – will protest.
In a briefing to staff, the National Crime Agency wrote: “A no-deal exit is likely to result in significant short-term disruption across the country, which may manifest simultaneously across multiple areas and geographic locations.”
The NCA said “wider potential impacts such as transport blockages, fuel and food shortages and protests/public disorder, could impact on officers both personally and professionally”.
Some police forces have stopped officers taking leave for the first weeks after Brexit, though senior officers think the risk of disorder is low.
One of the effects of leaving the EU without a deal will be that British police officers will lose access to EU criminal justice tools such as the European Arrest Warrant (EAW), the European Criminal Records Information System (ECRIS), the Second Generation Schengen Information System (SIS II) and the European Investigation Order (EIO).
To handle the loss of these modern tools, the National Crime Agency – which communicates with overseas forces and Europol – has recruited 87 officers to use the much less effective Interpol system and to use other arrangements that are less automated and more labour-intensive.
An International Crime Co-ordination Centre is being set up by the National Police Chiefs Council as part of what is being called Operation Safety Net to help forces with things like international manhunts and missing people inquiries.
To prepare for changes in immigration and customs at all points of entry into the UK, a Border Delivery Group has been established, chaired by Karen Wheeler, a senior official at HMRC.
The government has admitted that the UK’s borders are likely to operate in a “sub-optimal” way if there is a no-deal Brexit at the end of March.
The Border Force has recruited around 300 officers to make up a “Readiness Task Force” to provide “operational resilience” and allow other staff to do EU-related training.
It is also recruiting a further 600 officers to make sure there are enough staff at the borders.
In the event of a no-deal EU exit, the UK will need to patrol its fishing waters much more extensively that is has for many years.
The Royal Navy has already reprieved three Fishery Protection Patrol ships that were due to be taken out of service.
It is preparing to provide 600 days a year of fishery protection, three times what it currently provides.
The Marine Management Organisation (MMO), which regulates the seas around Britain, is also to pay up to £40m to charter civilian ships to help them patrol fisheries over the next four years
The proposed contract – for up to four years – is due to start on 1 April.
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It is to provide ships to help the MMO’s Marine Enforcement Officers with a means of getting around the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the seas around the UK. The contract says the ships must have a way of boarding other vessels.
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