The government is facing growing pressure to take action at the UK’s gridlocked container ports, as the looming Brexit deadline is also resulting in thousands of extra truckloads of goods heading to the Channel ports in France, causing delays and traffic queues.
The delays radiating out from major container ports such as Felixstowe, Southampton and London Gateway are now being felt acutely in a number of industries.
Retailers are struggling to get stock into stores and to customers in time for the critical Christmas period.
On Thursday, Honda was forced to halt production for two days at its Swindon plant due to a shortage of car parts. The Builders Merchants Federation has also reported dwindling supplies of tools, timber and roof tiles.
The British Retail Consortium (BRC) and groups representing the UK’s ports, shipping and logistics sectors are now appealing to transport secretary, Grant Shapps, for help.
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In recent weeks the congestion at Felixstowe, the UK’s biggest container port, as well as other locations has prompted a growing number of vessels to “cut and run” – either partially unloading or skipping UK calls altogether to dump cargo at Antwerp, Rotterdam and Zeebrugge instead.
Retailers are reporting week-on-week shipping cost increases of 25%, with carriers also slapping extra “congestion charges” on shipments to offset berthing delays and longer unloading times in the UK.
Andrew Opie, the BRC’s director of food and sustainability, said retailers were “working overtime to rearrange and redirect incoming freight in order to ensure customers can get the items they need, but some delays appear inevitable”.
“The last thing the public needs is disruption at the ports continuing into the new year at a time when Brexit will already put the Channel crossings under much greater pressure,” he added.
The busy Channel crossings are already feeling the strain of companies stockpiling before the transition period ends on 31 December.
French hauliers are reporting an unprecedented volume of traffic on UK routes, with about 8,000 trucks a day estimated to be crossing the Channel in each direction, 30% higher than usual. The extra trucks are causing traffic jams at the port of Calais, as well as near the Eurotunnel terminal.
In a joint letter to Shapps, the nine logistics trade groups, including the British Ports Association and the Road Haulage Association, asked the government for help and warned of further potential disruption in January.
Rory Munday, managing director of the Daygard Logistics, which moves 250 containers a week through the major ports, said the situation was getting worse as shipping lines unloaded containers at mainland European ports instead of in the UK.
The congestion had been a problem since September, he said, and early government action could have prevented it from escalating.
The rerouting of goods was adding long delays, Munday said, with some goods now taking five or six weeks to arrive, while import costs had soared.
“Many households have had a tough year and next year they will see many of the things they buy weekly increase dramatically in price,” he said.
The end of the Brexit transition period was always expected to lead to teething problems at the border but the pandemic has added a new dimension to crisis planning.
Kingfisher, the owner of B&Q and Screwfix, said that within the past month it had begun using six ports, rather than two, as part of its preparations.
Thierry Garnier, the Kingfisher chief executive, said the retailer had “anticipated the ports problem and managed it with transport companies … so we are in a good place”.
Unlike supermarkets, which rely on supplies of fresh food flowing into the country without a hitch, the DIY group’s products were less sensitive to delays, meaning it would “have a few weeks to adjust” in the event of no-deal.
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