The UK is in the dark about new post-Brexit biometric border checks threatening chaos for holidaymakers visiting the EU, the government has admitted.
Transport chiefs have raised the alarm over long queues when the entry/exit system (EES) – requiring data to be collected at the border for all non-EU arrivals – is introduced next year.
Quizzed by worried MPs, the Cabinet Office acknowledged it did not know how the checks will be implemented – as the number of cross-Channel tourists is expected to bounce back after Covid.
Asked what it would mean for car or coach passengers, Emma Churchill, the director general of the border delivery group, said the French government had yet to disclose its plans.
“So I can’t tell you exactly how the French intend to implement the entry and exit system,” she told the Commons public accounts committee.
The hope was that the checks could be brought in “without starting to cause those queues backing up”, Ms Churchill added.
Meg Hillier, the committee chair, called it “a big concern”, while a Conservative, Richard Holden, urged the government to work to avoid “disruption”.
“What’s really worrying me is you have got potential Covid checks and biometric passport checks will come in at some point,” he told a panel of Whitehall top civil servants.
The checks are expected be particularly difficult at the “juxtaposed controls” with France – which are on the UK side of the Channel – but will be introduced across the 26-nation Schengen Area.
Unlike the looming Etias visa-waiver program – similar to the ESTA required for travel to the US – they cannot be carried out in advance, at the booking stage.
The entry/exit system was developed while the UK was an EU member, but will now have implications for travellers from this country because of Brexit.
The inquiry – asking four government departments about the impact of Brexit border measures – saw all express confidence that the imposition of import controls, from January, will go smoothly.
Jim Harra, the chief executive of Revenue and Customs, admitted the “significant costs’ businesses must pay to trade with the EU – despite the Leave campaign repeatedly insisting Brexit would cut red tape.
“There’s no doubt that it’s part of the cost of leaving a customs union, that you have to bear that burden,” he said, insisting the government had been “transparent” about that.
Asked about small firms, struggling to pay hefty custom agent fees, Mr Harra replied: “Can I say that, in 3 years’ time, a small business will find it easy to self-serve customs – I think that will be challenging.”
Alex Chisholm, permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office, argued it is “too early to disentangle” the effects of Covid and Brexit on trade – despite the National Audit Office concluding leaving the EU swiped £17bn from exports in just three months.