Has there been a fall in British exports across the Channel thanks to Brexit?

Earlier this month, the Road Haulage Association (RHA) said loads on lorries going through British ports to the EU had fallen by as much as 68 per cent in January 2021 compared to January 2020.

It sparked a row, with the government taking the unusual step of publishing a point-by-point rebuttal of claims made by the trade association.

But the Cabinet Office’s response appeared to contain an admission that freight traffic did fall in the wake of Brexit, and that more of the lorries that crossed from Britain to France were empty, instead of loaded with goods for export.

The government has now given FactCheck some new figures.

Is Britain really facing a slump in exports to the EU? Here’s what we know and what we don’t know.

The analysis

In an open letter to Michael Gove – the minister in charge of Brexit contingency planning – the RHA said: “Intelligence we are collecting on an ongoing basis from international hauliers suggests that loads to the EU have reduced by as much as 68 per cent.”

The RHA has not made any more detailed figures available to FactCheck but told us: “The figure of 68 per cent came from a snapshot survey of RHA international haulage members for week three in January 2021 compared with a typical week in 2020. It represents the fall in number of loaded lorries going to the EU from our UK-based members.”

The idea is that more of the lorries coming to the UK to drop off goods are going back empty, rather than returning laden with British products.

The worry is that this could spell an early warning of a major fall in exports from Britain to the EU after Brexit.

The Cabinet Office hit back at several points raised in the RHA’s letter and said they did “not recognise” the figure of a 68 per cent fall.

But the department conceded in its response that there did appear to be a temporary drop in outbound freight traffic across the Channel and that an unusually high number of lorries leaving the UK were empty.

New figures

The Cabinet Office has given FactCheck new figures which suggest that overall freight traffic both to and from the UK fell in January but rebounded in February.

These are figures for the number of freight vehicles leaving Britain by sea.

We can see that the count for January 2021 (the blue line) was substantially lower on most days than in January 2020 (in purple), but that the two levels are now very similar:

The government says that overall traffic in January 2020 only reached 73 per cent of the numbers seen last year, but that it has risen to 98 per cent of the 2021 level in February so far.

The government offers a number of reasons for the fall in January, including the effects of the coronavirus epidemic and the possibility that businesses stockpiled goods in December ahead of Brexit.

The Cabinet Office says: “The January figures should be considered alongside the evidence of an increase in freight movements in November and December in both directions as a result of business stockpiling, leading to an increase of vehicles in both directions, as well as the restrictions placed on economic activity in the EU as a result of Covid-19.”

A spokesman added: “The latest available data shows that overall freight flows between the UK and the EU are back to their normal levels. This has been possible thanks to the hard work put in traders and hauliers to prepare for the end of the transition period.”

Cabinet Office figures show high levels of compliance with the new border requirements, and the government is keen to point out that we have not seen the kind of long queues of lorries at the ports which internal forecasts suggested could happen in the immediate aftermath of Brexit.

Empty lorries

These figures show the numbers of lorries flowing in both directions, but what if more lorries are going back to Europe empty, instead of being loaded with UK goods for export?

The government admits that there is some evidence of an increase in empty lorries after Brexit, saying data from France suggests as many as 50 per cent of the lorries crossing the Channel from Britain to Europe were empty in January 2021 compared to an average of around 30 per cent normally.

Alternative data provided by ferry operators suggests there was a smaller increase of 9 to 15 per cent in empty lorries leaving the UK in January and February, compared to the same period last year.

Depending on which figures you use, it is possible to find evidence of a significant fall in lorries loaded for export in January, although none of the statistics quoted by the government quite stands up the 68 per cent figure calculated by the RHA.

None of these data sources are official statistics, most of them are not directly comparable with each other and in most cases, we can’t check the original data independently.

We will have to wait until March to get official figures on overseas trade by sterling value, which will show whether there really has been a substantial fall in exports to the EU this year.

FactCheck verdict

The government says it doesn’t recognise the RHA’s headline-grabbing claim that loads to the EU fell by as much as 68 per cent after Brexit.

But the Cabinet Office has released figures which suggest there was a fall in the number of lorries leaving the UK in January, and there is also evidence that more lorries leaving the UK on ferries bound for Europe were empty than is usually the case.

Figures suggest that the overall flow of traffic has effectively returned to normal this month.

The government also says there is evidence that some stockpiling of export goods took place in December, just before Britain left the EU, which could explain a fall in exports in January.

The government says disruption to trade did not come close to its worst-case scenario of long queues of lorries at the border.

We will have to wait for official statistics later this year showing flows of imports and exports by value in pounds sterling to see the full effect of Brexit on trade so far.