Additional reporting by Barbara Gray in Paris
The majority of lorries travelling from the UK to the EU via Calais and Dunkirk have nothing in them, suggesting that trade has been significantly disrupted since Brexit.
According to figures for the week ending 24th January, an average of 3,400 lorries a day travelled from the Port of Dover and Eurotunnel to Northern France.
Two in three - 65% - were empty. At the beginning of January the rate was 75%.
In the same week, 4,000 lorries travelled in the other direction.
The data, provided by the Prefecture Hauts-de-France et du Nord, shows that HGV (heavy goods vehicle) traffic in both directions across the English Channel was down 30% on normal flows.
There were also issues with customs compliance. At the French border, only one in 10 Export Health Certificates - which are now required for consignments of food, including meat and fish - were correctly completed.
The English Channel is a vital freight route. More than half of all the goods sent from the UK to the EU, our largest trading partner, travel between Port of Dover/Eurotunnel and Northern France.
These figures point to a worrying slump in activity, which is hopefully temporary.
Last week, representatives of the Cabinet Office, DEFRA and HMRC presented an extremely upbeat assessment of trade flows to the Public Account Committee.
Alex Chisholm, Permanent Secretary for the Cabinet Office, acknowledged that traffic volumes were “low” but said they were “building up”.
When the chair of the committee, Meg Hillier MP, asked what proportion of lorries were travelling to France empty, no one could provide an answer.
Jim Harra, head of HMRC, acknowledged there was an “imbalance” but said HMRC didn’t have any data.
Traditionally, the UK imports more than it exports so it is not unusual for lorries to return to France with empty containers. But the proportion that did so in the third week of January was more than double the “normal” rate of 30%.
There are a number of reasons that could explain the sharp decline in goods being sent.
We know that many companies stockpiled in December ahead of Brexit, in anticipation of queues at the border. The second lockdown in November and the third in January has clearly had an impact on demand. And the French decision to require drivers to produce a negative Covid test before crossing the border has added to delays and complications.
It would be wrong to say that the new customs rules since Brexit are solely to blame for the slump in trade but they are clearly a significant factor.
Hauliers have been reporting that UK traders have been put off by the cost and the hassle of the new customs paperwork required to export to the EU. Hauliers complain about a general confusion about the new rules and a shortage of customs agents to process the required forms. They also say the government's IT systems aren’t reliable and have a tendency to stop working.
RIchard Burnett CEO of the Road Haulage Association (RHA) says: “This comes as no surprise to us: we have warned the government for months about their lack of preparation.
"IT systems not fir for purpose, lack of customs agents and incredibly unhelpful and poor communication to traders and hauliers.
"The Balance of UK trade has been badly affected and goods are stranded at warehouses. We are urging the govt to act on this now and not shrug it off as teething problems that will soon disappear.
There have not been as many issues with goods coming into the UK as the government is not currently applying the full suite of checks on imports, although these will be phased in over the course of the first half of this year.
Sam Lowe, a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform, said the number of empty lorries is a cause or concern.
“[They] suggest a substantial hit to the UK economy. And with new sanitary and photo sanitary controls still to be phased in by the British it is possible we will see increased disruption over the coming months,” he said.
“Companies were stockpiling before the end of transition but if this depressed level of trade continues then that points to price rises or supply issues ahead,” he added.
Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office Minister, admitted there have been problems.
“There are certain difficulties, you're right,” the told ITV News, “not least because of Covid restrictions on commercial and economic activity on both sides of the channel. But we are using real time intelligence in order to support business on both sides of the channel to be aware of what the new processes are."
Paul-François Schira, Deputy Prefect in charge of Brexit, for the Prefecture Hauts-de-France et du Nord told ITV News that there were signs in the last few days that the situation maybe improving.
On Tuesday, 5000 lorries crossed the English Channel in both directions, which is around 80% of the normal flow.
On Wednesday, only 50% of lorries returning to France from the UK were empty.
“Brexit means some reorganisation of logistics chains so the market is adjusting to new requirements.
“Traffic has picked up in January, conformity [with customs rules] is improving but there is still some progress to be made,” Schira said. “We are working with the British authorities to make this happen. It is in our common interests to make this happen”.
Schira said that despite the errors on Export Health Certificates the number of lorries turned-back to the UK has been extremely low.
Although, he added that during February the border authorities in France would gradually begin stricter enforcement.
What does the government say?
A government spokesperson said: "Thanks to the hard work put in by hauliers and traders to get ready for the changes that came as a result of leaving the Single Market and Customs Union, there are no queues in Dover, disruption at the border has so far been minimal and goods have been flowing efficiently."We are however aware that some businesses are facing challenges with specific aspects of our new trading relationship with the EU. To this end, we are operating export helplines, running webinars with policy experts and offering businesses support via our network of 300 international trade advisers. This is on top of the millions we have invested in the customs intermediaries sector.'We are committed to ensuring that businesses get the support they need to trade effectively with Europe, and seize new opportunities as we strike trade deals with the world's fastest growing markets."
A government spokesperson said: "Thanks to the hard work put in by hauliers and traders to get ready for the changes that came as a result of leaving the Single Market and Customs Union, there are no queues in Dover, disruption at the border has so far been minimal and goods have been flowing efficiently.
"We are however aware that some businesses are facing challenges with specific aspects of our new trading relationship with the EU.
"To this end, we are operating export helplines, running webinars with policy experts and offering businesses support via our network of 300 international trade advisers. This is on top of the millions we have invested in the customs intermediaries sector.
"We are committed to ensuring that businesses get the support they need to trade effectively with Europe, and seize new opportunities as we strike trade deals with the world's fastest growing markets."