The Department for Transport has confirmed that the no-deal Brexit contingency ferry services it commissioned at a cost of tens of millions of pounds have commenced today – despite the UK's failure to leave the European Union on time.
Civil Service World understands that the department is encouraging the service operators to sell off two weeks’ worth of tickets in an effort to claw back some of the bill for extra freight capacity it arranged as a contingency for predicted cross-Channel disruption.
The department has contracted two ferry companies to run extra crossings across the English Channel and the North Sea in the event of a no-deal Brexit, to ensure the UK does not lose access to its supply of medicines and other critical goods. A third contract with Seaborne Freight, which owns no ferries, was scrapped last month after it emerged that the company would not be able to deliver the services it had promised.
In the absence of a withdrawal agreement, DFDS and Brittany Ferries were contracted to run additional ferry services across the English Channel for six months starting today, when the UK was expected to leave the EU. The contracts are worth a combined £94m, Seabourne's terminated contract was for £13.8m.
DfT has now confirmed that services began as planned today, despite the UK having negotiated an extension of its Brexit deadline. The UK will remain an EU member until at least 12 April if no deal is agreed, and a longer extension may be agreed if the two sides reach a deal.
As part of its contract with the two companies, DfT has bought up a proportion of seats on the ferries. These have now been released on the public market, as it was not possible to cancel the services at short notice.
It is understood that the contracts with the ferry companies do not allow for the start of the contracts to be pushed back because of a delay to Brexit.
Neither the department nor either of the ferry providers was able to confirm to CSW how many tickets had been released, or how much of the cost was expected to be recovered.
In a statement sent to CSW, a government spokesperson said: “Leaving with a deal is still our priority, but as a responsible government it is only right that we push on with contingency measures.
“The government’s freight capacity contracts run for six months and are a vital part of wider contingency planning. They provide capacity for critical goods, including vital medicines, to continue to enter the UK in a no deal scenario.
“Due to the agreed extension until 12 April, tickets for the first two weeks have been released for sale on the open market which will minimise costs for the taxpayer.”
A spokesperson for Brittany Ferries confirmed the company was endeavouring to "sell as much unused DfT space as possible" on the 20 additional cross-Channel services it is running each week between now and 12 April, "thereby mitigating costs to the British taxpayer".
The company began arranging the extra crossings as soon as the contract was signed in December, the spokesperson said in a statement. It has hired 50 additional staff to handle the extra port calls, and spent three months training on-board staff.
"The reality is that we were committed as soon as we signed the contract and preparations began to deliver the dedicated NHS shipment channel. There is no turning back at this late stage because all the preparatory work is now in place for 29 March."
CSW has contacted DFDS for a comment.