Boris Johnson has scrambled together a new unit in Downing Street to manage the government’s response to the “nightmare scenario” of a no-deal Brexit.
The winter control and co-ordination cell, based in No 10, will report daily confidential briefings to the prime minister about emerging threats such as a surge in Covid-19 cases and extreme weather.
The unit is part of a wider operation, known in Whitehall as D20, to anticipate and respond to disruption over winter.
A Whitehall source told the Times: “We’re trying to anticipate what happens if you have no-deal gridlock in Kent, combined with flooding and a massive spike in Covid cases.
“Winter is always one of the most challenging times for the government with pressures on the NHS alongside the risk of things like adverse weather events. The question is what happens when you combine all that with Covid and a no-deal Brexit.”
This comes as the Food and Drink Federation warned food could rot in lorries stuck at the border and Christmas presents go undelivered due to Britain’s ports being disrupted by the coronavirus and Brexit-related stockpiling.
The unit will bring together details from both the Brexit and Covid operations committees, the civil contingencies secretariat and other Whitehall departments to anticipate problems.
One official said this was to avoid the prime minster receiving multiple papers in his red box from different departments and agencies.
“This will be a central unit to co-ordinate and assess all the information coming in. It is there to pull all the threads together,” the insider explained.
At the same time a “response cell” in the Cabinet Office will combine teams from across government to assess and respond to so-called disruptive incidents.
The entire D20 plan is being overseen by Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, who chairs the Covid and the Brexit operations committees.
Gove confirmed the unit had been set up to ensure the government was “prudently prepared” for a “difficult” winter
He told Times Radio: “We are all facing — as a result of Covid, and we all know it — a difficult January and a challenging February. But it’s also the case that at this time of year there can always be other events from flooding to adverse weather events that we need to prepare for.
“Of course we can’t foresee every eventuality but one of the responsibilities in government is to make sure we are ready for events like floods.”
Officials have privately conceded that if a deal with the EU is not struck there is significantly more chance of widespread disruption in the first few weeks of 2021 than if there is an agreement.
They admit they are unsure how far the EU will make life “difficult” for the UK and say that despite the warnings, many businesses are not prepared for new customs arrangements expected to come into force on January 1.