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Thursday, October 25, 2018 

Nautilus International, which represents 22,000 professional seafarers, is calling into question UK government plans to charter in ships to carry vital supplies in the event of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit.

General secretary Mark Dickinson said: “Ministers must be living on another planet if they seriously believe they can find a fleet of suitable ships to keep the country supplied. The long-term decline of the British Merchant Navy and UK maritime skills means that we are dangerously reliant upon foreign ships - particularly flags of convenience, of dubious quality and usually crewed by poorly-paid seafarers.”

The announcement follows the Department for Transport’s contingency plans to buy or lease ro-ro ferries to ensure the supplies of goods, food and medicines if French customs checks cut Dover-Calais freight volumes by as much as 85%. The plans also propose the diversion of ships to other ports around the UK.

Dickinson said the plans are unrealistic. “Britain struggled to find 50 merchant ships to support the task force in the Falklands conflict when our fleet was three times the size it is today,” he pointed out. “In the 1991 Gulf War, only eight of the 143 ships chartered by the MoD were British-flagged and a National Audit Office inquiry found that the UK overpaid by as much as £38m on its total charter costs. The government has had decades of warnings about the economic and strategic madness of an island nation relying on foreign-flagged and foreign-crewed ships. There’s also little room for manoeuvre in switching ships to other routes, as there are severe limitations on the ports and associated infrastructure capable of handling the intensity of vessel traffic.”

Dickinson noted that the House of Commons defence committee had warned in 1986: “There appears to be little regard in the formation of government policy as a whole for the implications, in terms of our national resilience, of dependence on other nations for merchant shipping.”

He said the government should, in addition to its short-term Brexit planning, start now increasing the size of the civilian-crewed Royal Fleet Auxiliary, and consider building on the existing strategic sealift capability of ro-ro vessels to establish a core fleet of for humanitarian and national security resilience, similar to the US Ready Reserve Force. 

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