Seafarers’ union Nautilus International has called into question the UK government’s plans to charter in ships to carry vital supplies in the event of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit.
The plan is being considered as a contingency measure, but the transport authorities remain optimistic a sensible trade agreement with the EU, UK’s largest source of food imports, would be made.
Under the plan, the Department for Transport intends to buy or lease ro-ro ferries to ensure the supplies of goods, food and medicines if French customs checks cut Dover-Calais freight volumes by as much as 85%. The plans also propose the diversion of ships to other ports around the UK.
“Ministers must be living on another planet if they seriously believe they can find a fleet of suitable ships to keep the country supplied,” Nautilus General Secretary Mark Dickinson said, stressing the plans were unrealistic.
“The long-term decline of the British Merchant Navy and UK maritime skills means that we are dangerously reliant upon foreign ships – particularly flags of convenience, of dubious quality and usually crewed by poorly-paid seafarers.”
Numerous obstacles to the plan have been identified, including the availability of such ships as well as the risk of overpaying for their hiring.
“The government has had decades of warnings about the economic and strategic madness of an island nation relying on foreign-flagged and foreign-crewed ships. There’s also little room for manoeuvre in switching ships to other routes, as there are severe limitations on the ports and associated infrastructure capable of handling the intensity of vessel traffic,” he pointed out.
Dickinson said the government should, in addition to its short-term Brexit planning, start increasing the size of the civilian-crewed Royal Fleet Auxiliary, which provides logistical and operational support for the Ministry of Defence, and consider building on the existing strategic sealift capability of ro-ro vessels and establish a core fleet of national flagged and crewed ships for humanitarian and national security resilience, similar to the US Ready Reserve Force.
In the meantime, he added, the UK should seek an extension to the Article 50 withdrawal process to provide more time for a Brexit deal to be secured.
The plan has also been criticized by the UK Chamber of Shipping.
“I don’t see how government itself can move goods faster or more efficiently than the private sector, particularly as those goods will still need to go through the same customs procedures in ports – which is where the real problem would be,” UK Chamber of Shipping CEO Bob Sanguinetti said commenting on the announcement.
“We are a flexible industry and the shipping market can adapt to meet the needs of our national economy just as it always has done.”