Logjam at busiest UK commercial port adds to holiday fears

LONDON (AP) — A logjam at the United Kingdom’s (UK) busiest commercial port ratcheted up concerns yesterday that the country could see shortages during the crucial holiday period, including of toys and food.

Worries have mounted over recent weeks that the UK’s economic recovery is being hobbled by widespread shortages, which have been most clearly seen in long lines at gas stations and some empty shelves at supermarkets.

The disruption is clearly visible at the east England port of Felixstowe, the UK’s largest commercial port. A bottleneck of containers at the port, which deals with 36 per cent of UK freight container volumes, has been blamed on a shortage of drivers.

The buildup of cargo has prompted shipping company Maersk to divert some of its biggest vessels away from UK ports to others in Europe, where it uses smaller vessels to get the deliveries to the UK.

“With Felixstowe handling almost 40 per cent of all the containers coming to and from the UK, this adds yet more imbalance to Britain’s supply chain, especially in the current peak consumer period we are entering ahead of Christmas,” said Chief Executive Alex Hersham of London-based digital freight forwarding company Zencargo.

Thousands of shipping containers at the Port of Felixstowe, south east England yesterday. PHOTO: AP

“It is essential that retailers and consumers prepare for an extended disruption to the supply chain and plan for what will be a holiday heavily impacted by these issues,” he added.

While other countries around the world have seen similar disruptions, Britain is facing particularly acute problems due to a shortage of truck drivers. The causes are widespread, but it’s clear that the combination of Britain’s departure from the European Union (EU) and the coronavirus pandemic prompted many EU workers to leave the UK and head home.

Director of Food and Sustainability Andrew Opie at the British Retail Consortium, said the congestion at Felixstowe was “yet another unwanted side-effect” of the driver shortage and that “further disruption may be unavoidable”.

Britain’s Conservative government has sought to temper fears there will be a shortage of many goods for the end of year holidays.

The government said it is accelerating efforts to train more homegrown truck drivers and is offering a few thousand short-term visas to foreign drivers, though few appear to have taken the offer because the visas only last for a few months.

“Extending the temporary visa scheme to increase the pool of drivers available would provide a short-term fix to these problems, and the government must act quickly to prevent further disruption for consumers in the months ahead,” the British Retail Consortium’s Opie said.

The shortages of products and drivers are coming at a time when the UK’s economic recovery is already losing momentum as a result of the supply chain issues.

The Office of National Statistics said the economy eked out growth of 0.4 per cent in August as restaurants and festivals benefitted from the first full month without coronavirus restrictions in England, but the increase was slightly lower than anticipated. The agency also revised down July’s figure from 0.1 per cent growth to a 0.1-per-cent decline as a result of weaker data from a number of industries.