A special academy is to be set up to train up to 50,000 people to fill out customs forms to enable post-Brexit trade with the EU.
Government ministers are liaising with businesses to establish a "customs agent academy" to prepare for trade with the EU at the end of the Brexit transition period - scheduled for December 31, the Financial Times reports.
Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove revealed the plans for the academy, earmarked for a location in Kent, and said the government is in talks with freight-forwarding industry to get it off the ground.
The Treasury has allocated £34m for training customs agents, with further funding to be announced in the coming weeks.
Around 50,000 customs agents will be required at the end of the transition period, the freight industry has estimated - a figure one ally of Michael Gove said was "not far off" the government's own estimate.
Hilary Benn, chair of the Commons' Exiting the European Union Committee, said: “Recruiting 50,000 customs agents and training them between now and the end of the year will be an enormous task, especially in the midst of the coronavirus crisis.”
Currently, there are around 50m customs declarations filled out each year due to UK trade with the rest of the world.
The Road Haulage Association (RHA) has estimated that, under a Cananda-style trade deal between the EU and UK, which would elimate most tariffs but still involve customs declarations, an extra 200m forms could be generated each year.
According to the RHA, a fully-trained and experience customs agent can handle around 20 customs declarations a day - meaning 50,000 agents would be required to deal with the expected workload.
If each agent was paid £30,000 a year, this would amount to any extra cost £1.5bn annually for businesses.
Marco Forgione, director-general of the Institute for Export and International Trade, said the government should “look again” at the funding currently available for training customs agents, given the Covid-19 pandemic.
“In an environment where you’ve got people on furlough and others who have lost their jobs altogether, people could be using this time productively to learn the skills and achieve the qualifications that will fill the professional gap,” he said.
A government spokesperson said: “The government has already injected £34m into growing the [customs] intermediary sector, in order to encompass EU trade after 2020, and thousands of agents, freight forwarders and parcel operators have taken advantage to improve everything from IT hardware to staff training.”
The news comes amid a row over the EU's bid to maintain an office in Belfast to help monitor the UK's implementation of the Brexit withdrawl agreement, under with the UK agreed to checks on trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
A letter seen by RTE says the UK Government agreed to an EU office in the city in February 2019.
"The UK Government supports the continued presence of EU offices in Edinburgh and Cardiff, alongside London and Belfast, given the longstanding relationship the EU has with all devolved nations," Sir Simon McDonald, permanent secretary at the Foreign Office, wrote.
The UK Government has since said the office is not needed and would be "divisive", while the DUP's Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson branded the idea as "unacceptable".
Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken and TUV leader Jim Allister have also hit out at the plans, while they have seen support from Northern Ireland's pro-remain parties.
Further divisions between the UK and EU were also highlighted last week when the European Commission circulated a technical note on post-Brexit customs plans involving the Northern Ireland border - a move the UK said it had not been informed of.
"It was not shared at recent meetings with the UK, nor has it been agreed by the government," the Prime Minister's spokesperson said.
"Most strikingly, the note appears to miss the fundamental objective of the Northern Ireland protocol. There is no mention of the Belfast Agreement or the peace process anywhere."