While many people here in the UK shudder at the thought of at least another three weeks of lockdown, well-organised customs professionals will seize this unprecedented opportunity to build a more resilient customs function and supply chain. As a customs adviser, here are my recommended top 5 to-dos under lockdown.
#1 Summarise lessons learnt from COVID-19
Reflect on what went well and what went badly in your business during the COVID-19 crisis to date. Was your customs function agile enough to adapt rapidly to the disruption?
Use the disruption as a test for your existing processes, check how effective they are. For example, if you have an escalation policy within your businesses, how did it work in practice?
Depending on your industry, supply shock and/or demand shock would have impacted your business. As a customs professional, what was the role you played in mitigating these impacts?
Summarising the lessons learnt from this ongoing global crisis may help prepare you for the similar disruptions in the future.
#2 Ready your customs function for the next disruption
There are constant changes in the customs world keeping customs professionals busy. For UK/EU businesses, Brexit is not going to disappear, so consider using this time to assess whether your business is ready. Many activities can be done under lockdown.
For example, estimate the financial impact of a no-deal Brexit based on historic data, review the accuracy of the commodity codes allocated to your products, writing/updating Standard Operating Procedures and customs broker instructions, etc.
There may be customs special procedures applicable to your business, with cash flow benefits. However, operating a customs special procedure comes with costs. It is advisable to spend some time weighing the customs duty savings as well as cash flow benefits against these costs, and start working on a business case to apply for the relevant special procedure.
#3 Assess level of internal resource you have against the work that needs to be done
Once you have a clearer estimate on how much work is required to prepare your business for the next disruption, compare the amount of work to the resources you have.
Be realistic and ask yourself: are there enough people in the customs team to complete the tasks in time? If not, are there any tasks that can be automated?
This could also help you prepare in advance a business case for hiring, when required.
#4 Line up external support
If you think you don't have enough resources but hiring is not feasible, you may wish to consider seeking external support.
The most recent report from the National Audit Office (The UK border: preparedness for EU exit October 2019) estimates the annual number of customs declarations in a no-deal outcome will increase from 55 million to 270 million. There will be 150,000 to 250,000 businesses making a customs declaration for the first time in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
The demand for customs brokers as well as experienced customs advisers will increase. Estimate how much additional support your business needs, and prepare a business case to allow you to seek external help. It is recommended to build relationships before the next disruption, to ensure your external advisers understand your business well enough to provide rapid support when needed.
#5 Don't forget about personal development
Customs is a relatively niche topic, but no matter how long you work in customs, there will always be areas you feel least comfortable with. Use lockdown time to enhance your technical knowledge.
Once you have identified the weak spots in your technical knowledge or gaps you want to fill, find ways to get this knowledge either from training or self-learning. There are plenty of learning materials available online.
Many customs advisers and organisations share regular analysis and updates on the latest legislative developments. Make sure you are signed up to sources of information you can rely on. If you already work with a customs adviser, tell them what you are interested in and ask them to look out for the types of information you want to receive.
There are plenty of things to get on with under lockdown. How many of the recommended activities have you already completed, and how long did it take you? Please share your experience and thoughts with the wider customs professionals' community to promote good practice.