Britain’s no-deal flotilla is getting ready to set sail, shuttling trucks carrying critical goods into the country starting Friday—at least two weeks before a possible split from European Union raises any trade barriers.
The ferry contracts, totaling 89 million pounds ($118 million), are meant to guard against shortages of items like medicines, vaccines and blood, along with spare parts for the energy sector and essential chemicals. Under six-month terms awarded by the Department for Transport in December, two operators will increase capacity starting on March 29, the original date for Brexit.
The measures were put in place to guard against some of the biggest dangers of a disruptive departure from the trade bloc. With the deadline coming up and Parliament still divided, the EU last week offered to extend the date until April 12 at least, putting off the risk of a no-deal exit that could trigger tariffs and lead to long lines at Dover, Britain’s biggest truck port. Operators of the emergency roll-on, roll-off ships will be implementing their plans regardless.
“It’s a little bit like a wedding,” said Nigel Wonnacott, a spokesman for Brittany Ferries, which won the largest 46.6 million-pound contract to provide additional capacity between England and northern France. “If it doesn’t happen you’ve still got everything in place and you need to pay the suppliers for the work that they’ve done.”
The DfT said in an email that leaving the EU with a deal is still the priority, but “as a responsible government it is only right that we push on with contingency measures.” It added that “this will ensure critical goods such as life-saving medicines can continue to enter the U.K. from the earliest possible leaving date in the event of a no deal exit.”
Brittany Ferries will add 20 sailings on routes from Portsmouth to Le Havre, Poole to Cherbourg and Plymouth to Roscoff. The French company says it’s already incurred costs to guarantee space on its 11 ships, hiring 50 people and changing schedules and fuel contracts to account for the extra activity. The DfT has about 40 percent of the garage space on those ships booked.
Denmark’s DFDS received a 42.5 million-pound contract for extra sailings on routes between Immingham, on England’s east coast, and Cuxhaven, Germany, and Rotterdam, and between Felixstowe, also in the east, and Rotterdam.
“We have the ships and capacities in our network to comply with the contracts already,” said Gert Jakobsen, a company spokesman. In this case, the capacity of the extra sailings will be entirely for the DfT, he said.
Certified suppliers of so-called category-one goods have been informed by various U.K. government departments that space is available and given guidelines on how to secure it, a DfT spokeswoman said. She declined to name those suppliers, citing commercially sensitive information.
Any surplus ferry capacity on the government’s hands will be sold back to the market, she said.
The DfT scrapped a 13.8 million-pound deal with Seaborne Freight, which had no ships and no trading history, in February after the company backing the plan pulled out. Seaborne was meant to reopen a ferry route from Ramsgate, near Dover, to Ostend in Belgium. On top of the doubts surrounding the operator, there was concern that Ramsgate itself wouldn’t be ready for March 29.
A second and more expensive blow came with the 33 million pounds the government paid to settle a case with Eurotunnel, operator of the undersea rail link between the U.K. and mainland Europe. The firm had sued over the DfT’s “secretive and flawed procurement exercise” for the award of ferry contracts.