Lorry and van drivers across the supply chain have been among the heroes of the Covid-19 crisis, delivering vital resources whilst much of the country has been in a period of stasis. However, such circumstances have been put at risk by the latest developments at the border, with IT systems at the heart of the conversation.

Political and legal disputes over the UK’s departure from the EU have dominated the news since the referendum. Among the focal points have been where and how customs checks on goods will take place, especially in relation to Northern Ireland and between the UK and mainland Europe.

The potential of technology has frequently been touted during discussions for these border arrangements, with some politicians hoping that technical solutions could resolve the disputes. But with less than four months until the end of the transition period, road hauliers have warned that the right systems may not be in place when the new regime begins next year.

Border challenges

Alongside other logistics specialists, the Road Haulage Association has published an open letter to the government warning that border IT systems are not going to be ready in time. The concern is that this will lead to lorry and freight delays and queues, causing disruption on a vast scale.

Such concerns are reinforced by the development schedule outlined by a government official. An official memo seen by Bloomberg says that during a meeting logistics representatives warned the government about “critical gaps” in the plans, with some aspects described as “unmanageable”.

There is also the prospect of overlap between the ten systems that hauliers will have to use, three of which are in development. The looming deadline has left mere months for completion, testing and training of such systems – the latter two of which present their own problems.

Logistics UK, another signatory to the open letter, has warned that staff would have to be trained during the Christmas season on Smart Freight, a web portal for checking travel permits, for it to be ready before January. Company’s will also need to integrate such systems into their business processes during this period, “traditionally the busiest time of year for the logistics industry”, as a company spokesperson noted.

As is increasingly becoming clear, the challenge of getting processes right at the border is considerable, but with the correct use of technology it can be addressed.

Improving processes

The implementation pressures are familiar for IT users and vendors, even if the situation is unique. While the exact details are unclear, the system must be integrated with the relevant tax authorities to ensure a smooth transition from the previous arrangements. This will be a delicate process hinging on the digital ecosystem in place and the connectors at its core.

Going forward, the success of the Smart Freight system will be determined by its ability to manage the swathes of data that will run through it. As a central part of the logistics process, this web-based application will need to be integrated fully with additional apps and systems, such as databases that will house information on the goods coming in and out of the country.

The need to access real-time data means that a siloed approach will not work. Core legacy applications across government departments need to be open via application programming interfaces (APIs) to enable emerging technologies to enter into the architecture and help digitally capture information at the borders.

If such technology allows different digital tools to speak to each other, this will open the possibility of a single view of freight, with clean and trusted data captured into a single master data hub to record critical information and enable swift processing.

Unified systems

The UK border has always been driven by technology which monitors, assesses and improves the flow of trade. This will inevitably become more scrutinised in the coming months and years.

Although much of this scrutiny will fall on the Smart Freight system, it is important to remember that this will become part of a much larger IT architecture and depend on successful integration between all the relevant applications and systems. Such an outcome is essential to avoid traffic deadlock, and keep hauliers happy and our deliveries running on time.