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Plain sailing ahead?

Disruption from COVID and Brexit has seen delays in moving materials, with more rule changes caused by the EU exit still to come. Mark Simmonds, of the British Ports Association, explains how to make sure your business is ready

The combined challenges of Brexit and COVID-19 have seen many electrical businesses facing delays and disruption when it comes to getting materials.

Over the past year, changes to regulations and the pressures of the pandemic have wreaked havoc on some supply chains and made people even more aware of the impact of global events on trade.

As the vaccination roll-out continues and companies adjust to life outside the EU, firms will be hoping for some stability over the next 12 months.

But there are still issues to be aware of and businesses need to plan ahead, advises Mark Simmonds, Director of Policy and External Affairs at the British Ports Association.

“Make your plan early and make sure your suppliers and customers are ready”

Although the rules about shipping goods out of the UK to the EU have already changed, the regulations on imports won’t come into effect until January next year. This could have an impact on electrical businesses who order materials from overseas, so it’s important to be ready for the changes.

Mark said: “There have been two big issues that have affected trade recently – Brexit and COVID. With regards to Brexit, things are quite calm, trade is flowing relatively well and we’re in a fairly comfortable position.

“The reason for that is partly because import controls haven’t come into effect yet for goods coming in from the EU. They have been delayed until January so ports have time to build the infrastructure they need to do these additional checks.

“But regardless of how the infrastructure goes, we may start to see issues again at the start of next year as that’s always going to be the case with a change at that magnitude.”

Ready for new rules

With the upcoming change in import laws, Mark advised SELECT Members who order goods from the EU to make sure they’re prepared for what lies ahead. He said: “They need to be aware of the new regulations and the new paperwork that might be required. They also need to make sure their suppliers are aware of the changes.

“We’re keen that everyone is ready and is already preparing for the January deadline because it’s not something you can do in just a couple of weeks. Make your plan early and make sure your suppliers and customers are ready.”

Building resilience

The changes mean there could be additional delays in getting goods into the country, which may have to be factored in when planning work and arranging contracts. Mark added: “Whenever you introduce new controls there may be an issue. The worst-case scenario is the infrastructure isn’t ready, but it’s still a long way off.

At the moment, we’re not expecting huge disruption but we can’t rule it out yet.

“A lot of people will have been more aware over the last couple of years of the importance of having resilience in the supply chain and having other options to turn to when there is congestion.”

Simplifying trade

While imports may face bumps in the road, it’s hoped companies who send their products to the EU could find the process becomes simpler in future.

“We’re not expecting any additional problems with exports,” said Mark.

“If anything, we hope they’ll start to improve. The UK Government is talking to France, the Netherlands and other countries about how trade facilitation can be improved for exports and hopefully, they can start to work together in a more constructive way.”

Goods come into this country in two main ways – either driven here on lorries or shipped in containers. Most imports from the EU tend to travel by lorry, whereas goods from further afield usually arrive via shipping containers.

As the pandemic swept the world, COVID-related issues caused disruption to global shipping and the supply of goods. While the peak of the problems has passed in the UK, other countries are still dealing with volatility.

Mark said: “Around the world there are a large number of containers in the wrong place. Because of the issues at the moment, a lot of the empty containers are not finding their way back to where they need to be, which is adding to freight rates and the general problem.

“Some ports in North America are having a tough time and that’s contagious – if ships are delayed by a week going in there then it delays their future call.”

The COVID controls also brought in delays for lorries travelling to Europe. France introduced new requirements for travellers without the usual exemption for hauliers. “That was a big shock,” said Mark, “but people are getting used to the controls now.”

Calm after the storm

Certain goods carry extra regulations which can made trade more complicated. However, electrical firms are in a good position to avoid a lot of the problems that have affected other sectors, such as the seafood industry.

Mark explained: “What the authorities tend to view as the riskiest products are plant and animal-based products, for example food, wood and timber. Finished goods and components tend to be viewed as lower risk, so there will be fewer controls placed on them.”

Looking ahead, Mark is hoping to see more stability and calm following the upheaval of the last year. He said: “Things have been really stable recently and I think everyone just hopes that continues.”


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