A police officer waves through a driver at the entrance to Dover port on January 1 — the first full day of the UK’s new trading arrangements with the EU © Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

The UK’s first full day in 47 years outside the EU’s single market and customs union was marked on Friday by a smooth flow of traffic through ports on both sides of the channel, as many hauliers delayed shipments to let new customs requirements bed down.

Operations were largely calm despite some evident confusion outside the Port of Dover where police officers turned away large numbers of drivers who had not yet fulfilled the requirement — separate from the customs process — of producing a negative Covid-19 test before travelling to France. Some drivers there expressed frustration at the new customs bureaucracy.

The post-Brexit trade deal agreed by Boris Johnson with Brussels on Christmas Eve guarantees tariff and quota free trading arrangements with the UK’s biggest export partner but the agreement will still usher in a wave of new red tape and bureaucracy for companies doing business with the EU.

Exporters and importers must now make a customs declaration before sending goods across the English Channel or Irish Sea, although port officials at the main transport hubs agreed on Friday that the new processes and systems would be more rigorously tested in coming weeks.

Jean-Michel Thillier, a customs official in the Hauts-de-France region, said it had been “so far so good” using new “smart border” technology that allows logistics companies to complete customs declarations ahead of time. By mid-day in Calais, about 200 trucks had made the crossing into France, he said.

Most vehicles are allowed to proceed without stopping on arrival at ferry ports or the Eurotunnel terminal, while those missing paperwork or flagged as potentially problematic can be taken aside for additional checks.

In Calais, less than 10 per cent of the lorries that crossed in the morning were stopped for checks, officials said.

“Today is a very light day so it’s too early to say how the new systems will perform,” added Mr Thillier. “It’ll take two or three weeks to really judge but I am feeling confident that the measures taken will work.”

The UK formally left the EU customs union and internal market with the end of the post-Brexit transition period at 11pm UK time on Thursday, but a protocol to avoid checks on the Irish border keeps Northern Ireland tied to EU customs requirements. 

Séamus Leheny, Northern Ireland policy manager with Logistics UK, a trade body, said six of the 15 trucks that arrived in the Port of Belfast on the first sailing from Great Britain were selected for inspection by officials. While the process seemed to work “pretty seamlessly” on Friday, it would be far more thoroughly tested when traffic levels returned to closer to normal, he said.

“It’s going to be fairly quiet for the first couple of days because a lot of traders have either stockpiled or stepped back to see how it turns out in the first few days,” Mr Leheny said. “So we won’t really see the full extent of it until next week.

Signage directs trucks to border ready and not border ready lanes at Holyhead ferry terminal in Wales © Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

At the UK end of the Channel Tunnel in Folkestone, trucks travelling to France passed through a new “pit-stop” area where staff from Getlink, the tunnel’s operator, conducted safety checks and ensured that drivers could produce a valid customs declaration. The process was taking only a few seconds per vehicle.

Development of pit-stop areas at both the French and English ends of the tunnel has been part of a total of €47m of investments by Getlink to build facilities to cope with the new customs system. The ports of Calais and Boulogne-sur-Mer, in France, have invested €13m in new facilities.

Nevertheless, there were some teething problems. The port of Holyhead, in north Wales, said six trucks had been turned away because drivers lacked the pre-boarding notification required from Irish Revenue for shipments heading to the Irish Republic. Holyhead is the busiest UK port for crossings to Ireland.

Meanwhile, at Dover, the world’s busiest ferry port, traffic periodically backed up as police redirected drivers who had no proof of a negative coronavirus test to Manston airport, 20 miles away, the holding site where the tests are being conducted.

A Spanish driver, who complained that the new process was difficult, said he had to wait three hours at his company’s offices while the customs declaration was completed. A clearly frustrated Italian driver described the process as “a little mess”, although the next driver in the line insisted very little had actually changed and the customs process was “normal”.

Everyone concerned stressed, however, that the volumes of traffic moving were tiny compared with peak levels. The Port of Dover, where there were vast areas of empty tarmac in place of the normal queues of trucks waiting for ferries, said just 2,237 trucks had passed through in the 24 hours to 7am on Friday, compared with an average of more than 6,000 trucks a day during 2019.

Olivier Dussopt, the French minister responsible for customs, said: “It’s only the beginning so we must be prudent. We cannot control what happens on the British side of the border, so if there are traffic backups because of lack of preparation or adaptation there, then unfortunately we will all be victims.”

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