Trader Support Service: A Lifeline for NI Businesses in a Time of Distress

Well, we didn’t see that coming. What an utterly horrible six months we as an industry and society have endured. COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown have had a hugely damaging and long-lasting effect on the logistics sector. The pandemic’s impact on our daily lives, the economy and our industry has been merciless, especially on those operators who were vulnerable given the sectors they work in and the commodities they transport.

Some operators here in Northern Ireland saw their entire supply chains grind to a halt overnight, leaving no option but to park up trucks and furlough staff. Others were more fortunate simply due to the lottery of which customers stayed open and which businesses closed.

However, over the last six months our industry has not just done itself proud with how it kept vital supply chains open during difficult times, but it showed its resolve and true grit in solving problems and keeping our shops stocked, fuel delivered, factories replenished and medical supplies moving.

The role of our drivers and the industry overall was recognised and appreciated by the public and the media, and this is something we must build on as we move forward and work our way back to recovery.

In the first few weeks, much of my time was spent working for derogations such as delivery times permitted to shops, drivers’ hours rules, DCPC validity, ADR, IVA, vehicle testing and driver licence renewals. Some of these were straightforward enough but others were more complex, but thankfully we got there on all of them. Some problems remain, such as limited capacity for vehicle testing, which is causing problems for maintenance service providers and operators trying to ensure they have vehicles prepared and available when they need them.

The biggest disappointment has been the lack of financial support from government for those hardest hit in our industry. The furlough and CBILs scheme were welcome and certainly saved many businesses, but the lack of a grant aid package could have a long lasting impact.

In May I gave evidence to the Northern Ireland Infrastructure Committee in Stormont on how our industry was coping during COVID-19. My key ask that day, which remains the same today, was for a means tested aid package for those operators who need it most. I acknowledged not all operators were suffering equally, hence why those in need could demonstrate why they needed help and thus ensure they remain financially sustainable.

Before that meeting and ever since we have a game of ‘pass the hot potato’ between different ministers over who is responsible and able to deliver aid to hauliers in need. We will keep asking those questions and as I have warned, the real impact was never going to be felt in the early months of COVID-19, but later in the autumn when payment holidays and furlough end and we start to see what the impact of the inevitable recession looks like on the wider industry. For now, operators here will strive to continue carrying out their work professionally and admirably which were the very qualities that got us through those dark months of COVID-19.

Brexit Beckons

In the midst of everything else, it has been all too easy to forget that Brexit is still here and we are quickly getting closer to 1 January 2021, which will see the biggest change in how we move goods into and out of Northern Ireland.

Following the development of the Northern Ireland Protocol, Logistics UK has been pressing the government to provide financial support for Northern Irish businesses who will need to adapt to the new NI-GB trading procedures post-EU exit. So, following many meetings with government ministers, we were relieved when the government announced the creation of the Trader Support Service. This £200million scheme will provide traders with an end-to-end service to guide them through all import processes, including handling digital import and safety and security declarations on their behalf, at no additional cost.

Northern Irish businesses face significant challenges at the end of the transition period, not least the challenges of customs documentation and other formalities, which many would be encountering for the first time. The support package will ensure the cost of implementing or enforcing new border arrangements will not fall solely onto business or logistics providers. It will provide a vital lifeline for NI businesses concerned about the new administrative tasks they face.

However, with fewer than 130 days until the end of the transition period – and the scheme operator only due to be announced as I write this in September, there is very little space for the new systems to be trialled and implemented. This will be made more complex by the challenges posed by the festive season, which is traditionally the logistics sector’s busiest working period. And, while the support package is most welcome, there are still several other areas of concern the government must address. Logistics UK has worked with its members to identify the key measures needed to keep trade between NI and GB moving efficiently. These include ongoing engagement with logistics businesses; minimising frictions, red tape and costs for industry; and customs training and support to build customs capacity.

As the UK forges its new relationship with the EU, the maintenance of flexible, frictionless trade between NI and GB is vitally important to the continued recovery and success of our economy. In the meantime, we advise all our members to continue with their Brexit preparations and seek support from the Trader Support Service if possible.

For more information on the Trader Support Service, including how to register interest, please visit www.gov.uk/guidance/trader-support-service