Brexit border IT crash delays fresh food imports by more than a day

15 May 2024, 10:54 | Updated: 15 May 2024, 12:36

IT systems failures at the UK border have caused major delays to fresh food shipments from the EU, with importers complaining of chaos at the busiest border post as lorries were delayed by more than 24 hours.

Sky News understands a key software system crashed at the weekend, leaving shipments of meat, cheese, fresh food and flowers being held for long periods as paperwork was processed by hand.

The system failure comes just two weeks after the introduction of new processes the government promised would be "world-leading".

Physical checks on food and plant imports from the EU were introduced at the end of April as part of a long-delayed post-Brexit border regime.

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Imports coming through the UK's busiest port at Dover are now routed through a new border facility 22 miles inland at Sevington in Kent, where paperwork is supposed to be cleared and any physical checks carried out.

Lorries arriving this weekend however faced long delays and chaotic scenes as a result of the the failure of the Automatic Licence Verification System (ALVS).

The ALVS system is supposed to automatically clear goods through customs and, according to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), deliver "a substantial time and efficiency saving for trade".

Instead, border staff and importers faced problems almost immediately, with the most acute issues last weekend particularly affecting imports from Italy.

Patricia Michelson, founder of La Fromagerie, which imports cheese and other produce from Europe, told Sky News her consignments of fresh fruit and vegetables, cheese and cured meats were delayed by more than 48 hours.

Scheduled to be delivered at 6am on Monday they did not arrive until Tuesday morning after the lorry was delayed at Sevington, leaving some of the produce spoiled or unfit for sale because it may not have been kept chilled.

"It is unforgivable, we have spent days and weeks on making sure that we were ready for the new systems, that we get the paperwork right, we have checked and rechecked to make sure it ran smoothly.

"Then we find the systems crash, apparently because of a power outage, and our goods are being turned back and then held for hours.

"They built a major new system, doubtless spending millions, and at the second time of asking it doesn't work. All we got from DEFRA by way of explanation was saying everything is in hand, when we know it is total chaos."

Ms Michelson said the system failures had added to the challenge of post-Brexit border controls for small independent businesses.

"The big suppliers and importers have the scale to pay people to run their imports, but for smaller operators like me it just adds cost and disruption."

Nigel Jenney, chief executive of the Fresh Produce Association, said his members had encountered "total chaos" at the border since the weekend, with ongoing issues that will hit traders hard.

On Tuesday a DEFRA spokesperson confirmed that, three days after the crash, systems were still not restored.

"A power outage over the weekend affected one of the systems required to process imports. For the majority of vehicles at the border there were no significant delays, but we immediately activated contingency arrangements for affected vehicles, working alongside HMRC and Border Force.

"We are working at pace to resolve the issue and expect that systems will be returning to normal functioning soon. Since the introduction of checks, our teams have been working closely with traders to ensure checks are completed efficiently and swiftly."