UK officials fear October port chaos unless EU again delays biometric plan

Updated
<span>If the EU scheme experiences teething issues, the Port of Dover is likely to experience the most disruption.</span><span>Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA</span>
If the EU scheme experiences teething issues, the Port of Dover is likely to experience the most disruption.Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

UK government officials fear tailbacks and chaos at UK ports in three months’ time unless the EU again delays plans to introduce a biometric travel registration scheme requiring facial and finger scanning.

From 6 October all non-EU nationals will be required to enter biometric and fingerprint technology under a new European entry/exit system.

The scheme’s introduction is seen as a critical moment when British citizens – as opposed to businesses – will suddenly feel the impact of the end of free movement on their daily lives. Part of the problem is that an app prepared by the EU and Frontex that is supposed to streamline the process of registering individual data is not yet definitely ready.

The aim of the app is to allow non-EU citizens to register their details before starting their journey rather than doing so at a border crossing.

The scheme could also become an early test of whether the new UK government’s offer to have a more cooperative relationship with the European Commission can ease inherited headaches such as these. Rishi Sunak had been privately pressing for the EU to give UK citizens full access to the bloc’s e-gates, but that appeared to be a political non-starter.

The benefit of the scheme from the EU’s perspective is that it will be a practical step against illegal migration into the bloc and it will make it easier to ensure that non-EU citizens do not exceed their maximum stay time. It will also reduce the need to stamp passports with entry and exit dates.

The scheme has been in preparation since 2017 and was due to start in 2021. The latest postponement, to October, was made after France requested that the scheme be delayed until after the Paris Olympics.

It is due to be introduced only three weeks before the October half-term holiday, leaving little time for glitches to be ironed out before there is a rush of passengers.

On the first registration, travellers will be required to submit fingerprint checks and provide a facial biometric. On subsequent visits within three years, a facial biometric test at automated gates will be required.

Each new visit triggers another three years of validity, until the expiry date of the passport.

UK officials fear that if the predicted chaos at border crossings such as Folkestone and Dover happens in the way many in the travel industry fear, it will be the current government, as opposed to the advocates of Brexit in the Conservative party, that will take the blame.

The UK is not opposed to the scheme in principle, and acknowledges there have already been numerous previous delays. But it is concerned that inefficient introduction of the scheme will help no one.

A recent UK Department for Transport survey showed that 69% of the UK public had not heard of the European entry/exit scheme, and 15% said it was likely to make them travel less.

Getlink, the rail company operating the Channel tunnel between France and the UK, is already building multimillion-pound processing centres at Folkestone and Calais to handle the scheme. The UK border crossing that is likely to experience the most disruptive delays, however, is the Port of Dover.

Dover could face significant issues because of the volume of vehicles it processes and its space constraints. The Kent council county leader, Roger Gough, and the Port of Dover CEO, Doug Bannister, warned the UK government last week that the system’s implementation could ultimately lead to supply chain disruption in the UK.

Shortly after the scheme is introduced – in mid-2025, according to the latest plan – prospective UK visitors to the Schengen area will also have to apply online for permission to enter.

The Schengen area comprises most of the 27 remaining members of the EU (but not Cyprus or Ireland), as well as Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein.

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