Published: 06:00, 12 December 2020
| Updated: 12:29, 12 December 2020
As a week of chaos on Kent's roads comes to a close, trepidation grows over mass disruption that could result from Britain's exit from the EU at the end of the month.
Dover-bound motorists will now be used to the sight of queued lorries snaking down the A20, held at temporary traffic lights under the Dover Traffic Assessment Project (TAP) system.
But the increased delays and hold-ups at Dover could also have devastating effects on local businesses relying on swift imports and exports.
And with fears that as many as 60% of Kent businesses are not prepared for a no-deal Brexit, the “seismic shift” in trade in the new year could leave many business owners struggling to stay afloat.
Adrian Ling, managing director of Plamil Foods based in Folkestone, says uncertainty over Brexit has already cost his business dearly, and transport delays and additional costs have already resulted in European customers looking elsewhere for products.
The self-styled 'vegan Willy Wonka', who also fronts the Kent Dark Chocolate Company, said: "If we are supplying a large customer and they may tell us they want it in on a certain day - if you can't say 'well we can deliver it on a certain day', that will incur extra costs.
"We're already discussing Christmas next year with suppliers, but how are we supposed to be able to negotiate prices when we don't know what things are going to be like?
"The uncertainty has meant that we have already lost substantial business for Easter, because there is a lot of companies in Europe turning around and saying 'we're not even going to be stocking an item from the UK until we know what's going to happen.'"
With potential transportation delays incurring additional costs for the food company, it has meant some customers are going elsewhere in Europe where future delivery costs can be calculated more definitively.
Mr Ling said: "We've already found our European customers are going to other European suppliers, and you can understand - why wouldn't they? They don't know if they can purchase from us under what terms or what prices."
The director has been left frustrated with the way the government has handled the Brexit process: "We feel very let down by a bunch of amateurs that have not at all understood the complexities."
Earlier this week Kent's police chief projected a maximum estimated delay of two days for crossing the Channel would interrupt supply chains for food, essential goods and medicines.
He also told drivers to expect three to six months of disruption on the county's roads in the new year.
A public briefing on Wednesday, December 9, saw chief constable Alan Pughsley and Kent Police and Crime Commissioner Matthew Scott telegraph disruption from as early as Sunday, January 3 - just two days after the transition period ends on December 31.
Mr Pughsley said: "Anybody who thinks living in Kent is not going to be disrupted and affected over the next three to six months is probably a little disillusioned.
"There is going to be, without any doubt whatsoever, traffic disruption; how big and how broad that is [will depend on] how effective all of our planning partnership will be.
"We are thinking very hard about the community impact, particularly in the east of the county."
Roads to recovery
Amidst congestion piling up on roads across the county, the breakdown of an articulated lorry could cause a complete gridlock for motorists.
An emergency recovery company in Medway has already struggled to reach drivers in need this week during the enforcement of TAP.
Neil Yates Recovery (NYR), in Rochester, were called out earlier this week to a broken down vehicle on Dover seafront.
Dispatching a response truck from Herne Bay, it would normally take less than an hour to arrive.
But it took the driver two and a half hours, as he battled through increasing traffic leading to the port.
John Darvell, incident manager for the business, said this week spells trouble for the new year.
He said: "We just couldn't get through the traffic - he wasn't even at the port, and he wasn't even in the queue going to the port, he was heading out.
"Although they say local traffic can use the traffic lane, that's okay as long as you haven't got two vehicles stuck side by side and you can't get passed the traffic queue."
For breakdowns inside the Eurotunnel, delays on the county roads makes things all the more difficult.
Last week John handled a recovery of a lorry broken down in one of the departure lanes.
He said: "Not only have you got to get through TAP, you've got to get into Eurotunnel, into the departure lines for the train and actually fish them out of there."
John believes if congestion continues into 2021 as Kent's Police chief predicts, there will be more breakdowns as a result of vehicles waiting around for longer in long queues to the port.
And for NYR, not knowing how long a recovery job could take makes it difficult to price a job to a client.
"We just couldn't get through the traffic..."
For recovery jobs across the Channel, a lack of clarification from government means the business has no idea what the process will be.
John said: "We can go out empty without getting a Kent Access Permit or anything like it, but if we're taking a vehicle back to Europe that's broken down, then the original vehicle should have all of its documentation in place.
"But does that mean we're going to need documentation because we're the lead vehicle because of what he's got? Is what he's got what we need to submit? Nobody knows the answers."
A new approach?
One logistics company is predicting a change to the method of transporting goods following the end of the Brexit transition period.
Family-run Nicholls Transport in Sittingbourne no longer send their drivers overseas, instead relying on cross-continent partnerships to deliver their goods.
Utilising partnerships in the Belgian port of Zeebrugge, the company transport the freight to either Dover, Purfleet or Tilbury, where it is unloaded, shipped unaccompanied and then picked up and delivered on their behalf.
Alex Nicholls, operations director of the logistics company, said a system of unaccompanied freight crossing the Channel could become the norm in the near future.
Mr Nicholls said: "None of our guys go abroad now, all the trailers get shipped out unaccompanied.
"You can have problems on the continent - fines, delays, I think all of this coming in from Europe is going to stop.
"I would have thought most of it would be coming in unaccompanied, but that's only a guess from us."
The logistics expert said he is not worried about his business in the new year though: "We're not concerned at all, if anything it's going to be good for the industry, because prices are shooting up left right and centre.
"The Europeans don't want to come over here because they can't get anything back out that pays any money, so it's going to work better for companies like us that are sending the trailers out unaccompanied."