UK government plans to charter in ships to carry vital supplies in the event of a 'no-deal' Brexit have been called into question by the maritime professionals' union Nautilus International.
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 Cabinet is reported to have discussed Department for Transport 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.
But Mr 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,' he added.
'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,' he pointed out.
Mr 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, which provides logistical and operational support for the Ministry of Defence, and consider building on the existing strategic sealift capability of ro-ro vessels and establish a core fleet of national flagged and crewed ships for humanitarian and national security resilience, similar to the US Ready Reserve Force.
In the meantime, he added, the UK should seek an extension to the Article 50 withdrawal process to provide more time for a Brexit deal to be secured.
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