With just 16 days until Brexit, evidence is emerging of deep tensions in Whitehall as the civil service battles to plan for a no-deal scenario.
Civil servants say they have been frustrated by political paralysis, gripped by inter-departmental rows and shorn of key staff while trying to implement the biggest change to the state’s machinery since the second world war.
Bob Kerslake, a former head of the civil service, said the root of this frustration was the failure of UK politicians to decide on a plan to leave the EU.
“What is making it extremely difficult for civil servants is the paralysis of politicians. They do not know what they are preparing for,” Lord Kerslake said.
“For every task in hand there are at least two streams – the deal and the no deal – and with it a duplication of tasks. What I am getting from them is a desire to serve the government but they cannot do so without instruction and time is running out to prepare properly, one way or the other.
“This is really getting close to mission impossible now.”
As the possibility of a no-deal Brexit has increased, mandarins have spent more time and public money on possible scenarios that may never be needed, with £4bn of taxpayers’ money earmarked for no-deal planning since 2016. They have also been planning for scenarios that would have a major impact on everyday public services.
Kent police has asked for extra help to deal with traffic and related problems if the Channel ports are clogged up, calling for officers to be deployed and placed on standby from around the country. The plan is called Operation Snow Bunting.
Frustrated ministers who are opposed to no deal say the shift in resources should not be happening. One cabinet source said: “I can’t believe we are planning to take officers off the street at a time knife crime is rising.”
There are also plans in place to deploy officers in and around supermarkets and other shops at the end of March. The fear is that people panic-buying food could cause chaos.
Civil servants from the Department of Health and the Department for Transport have been helping to coordinate commercial flights to fly radioisotopes, used to detect cancer, into the UK in the event of a no-deal Brexit. At one point officials were considering hiring light aircraft to fly vital blood products to the UK from the European mainland. However, it is understood this plan has been ditched.
“We have asked suppliers to bring in isotopes by air in the event of problems in the Calais-Dover crossing,” a Whitehall source said.
The key focus is the management of the border with France. A source at Highways England, the agency that builds and monitors motorways and major roads, said managers had drawn up plans to relocate 10% of the workforce to Kent in the event of no deal.
The principal worry is not the movement of people, which will be largely unchanged, or even tariffs, which can be levied subsequently, but checks relating to food and animal products where checks are made at or near the border.
Kent council has made plans to park 5,000 lorries on one lane of the M20 and nearby dual carriageways and a further 6,000 at Manston airport to minimise disruption to traffic across the rest of the county.