The official publication of the government’s “reasonable worst-case planning assumptions” for a no-deal Brexit has laid bare departments' expectations of food and medicine shortages, public disorder and traffic gridlock if the UK leaves the European Union without a deal.
The briefing document, which was published last night after MPs used parliament’s humble address mechanism to force ministers’ hand, reveals that as of last month departments believed members of the public would be increasingly less prepared for a no-deal Brexit as political wrangling continued.
Despite running to just 20 paragraphs, the paper marked “OFFICIAL SENSITIVE” brings together paints a dark picture. It includes the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ prediction that the supply of certain types of fresh food would decrease, along with shortages of key food supply disruption”.
Part of that disruption would stem from hold-ups at the shortest cross-channel routes used by HGVs. The document said the Department for Transport and the Brexit Delivery Group that up to 85% of UK lorries will be held up by French customs on the first day of a no-deal Brexit because they do not have the necessary paperwork.
DfT said that even after the shock of the first day of a no-deal Brexit – or D1ND as the document refers to it – the worst disruption as the Channel’s short straits could last “for up to three months” with the proportion of HGVs arriving unready for French customs potentially up to 70%.
The document did not give numeric projections for the length of queues that held-up lorries may cause through delays at the Port of Dover and Eurotunnel, near Folkestone.
However, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said there was a possibility that regional fuel supplies could be disrupted if traffic queues in Kent blocked the Dartford crossing. The crossing, which links Essex and Kent east of the capital and is part of the M25 orbital motorway, is 50 miles from Dover as the crow flies.
Defra said that while public water supplies were "likely to remain largely unaffected” the most significant risk they faced was a failure in the chemical supply chain could affect "up to 100,000s of people". However, it stressed the risk of such an outcome was “low”.
Defra added there could be "significant disruption lasting up to six months" of medicines coming into the UK. "Whilst some products can be stockpiled, others cannot due to short shelf lives – it will also not be practical to stockpile products to cover expected delays of up to six months," the document said.
Last week the government announced a £100m communications drive to ready the public and business for an October 31 Brexit.
The Yellowhammer briefing document, which is dated August 2, suggests that the government’s best advice as of six weeks ago was that “public and business readiness for a no-deal will remain at a low level, and will decrease to lower levels, because the absence of a clear decision on the form of EU Exit (customs union, no-deal, etc) does not provide a concrete situation for third parties to prepare for.”
The document also predicted that “EU Exit fatigue” following the second Article 50 Brexit Day extension would “limit the effective impact of current preparedness communication”.
The fatigue was in stark contrast to some of the other risks departments are preparing for.
The Home Office warned that protests and counter-protests would take place across the UK that “may absorb significant amounts of police resource”. It added: “There may also be a rise in public disorder and community tensions”.
A Northern Ireland specific section amplified such concerns at. Elements attributed to the Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland Civil Service said the cross-border agri-food sector would be hardest hit and that “disruption to key sectors and job losses were likely to result in protests and direct action with road blockages”. The section predicted that the situation would be seized upon in border communities where criminal and dissident groups “already operate with greater threat and impunity”.
The Department of Health and Social Care added that a knock-on effect of a no-deal Brexit could be felt by the nation’s “fragile” social care providers, who are already battling financial viability issues.
DHSC said that a combination of price inflation and increasing staff and supply costs could push care firms that provide vital services to local authorities over the edge in as little as two months. The document said severe weather conditions or an outbreak of winter flu could exacerbated the situation.
Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said the Yellowhammer release confirmed the severe risks of a no-deal Brexit.
“It is completely irresponsible for the government to have tried to ignore these stark warnings and prevent the public from seeing the evidence,” he said.
“Boris Johnson must now admit that he has been dishonest with the British people about the consequence of a no deal Brexit. It is also now more important than ever that parliament is recalled and has the opportunity to scrutinise these documents and take all steps necessary to stop no deal."
In addition to the Yellowhammer document, a version of which was leaked to the Sunday Times last month, MPs also requested communications between No. 10 officials covering the reasons behind this week’s prorogation of parliament.
The request was declined, with Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove describing the ask as "an unprecedented, inapproriate and disproprtionate" request which would not be complied with.