By James Davey
LONDON (Reuters) - Gaps will start to appear on British supermarket shelves within days if transport ties with mainland Europe are not quickly restored, the UK's two biggest grocers warned on Monday.
Freight from France is being disrupted as part of a wider suspension of travel links with Britain to try to curb a new faster spreading strain of COVID-19.
The French government has closed its border to arrivals from Britain for 48 hours, which means no lorries can leave the English port of Dover, the main gateway to Europe.
Market leader Tesco and No. 2 player Sainsbury's both said if the disruption continued food supplies would be impacted.
"If nothing changes, we will start to see gaps over the coming days on lettuce, some salad leaves, cauliflowers, broccoli and citrus fruit," said Sainsbury's.
Tesco highlighted the same products, apart from broccoli.
British supermarkets are facing record Christmas demand due to COVID-19 restrictions on the hospitality industry and on travel and there were fears the transport crisis could trigger panic buying.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged Britons to shop normally and said French President Emmanuel Macron was keen to resolve the crisis within hours.
Though large queues snaked around supermarkets across the UK on Monday, food retailers said they had not seen any major changes in customer buying behaviour on Monday.
They said it was in line with what they expected for Christmas week, pointing out that Dec. 21 is always one of the busiest days on the retail calendar.
CHRISTMAS LUNCH SAFE
“We have plenty of food for Christmas available in stores," Tesco said.
"We’ve been building our stockholding of key products ahead of the Christmas peak and are working closely with our hauliers and suppliers to continue the supply of goods into our stores."
Sainsbury's said all products for "the Great British Christmas lunch" were already in the country and it had plentiful supplies.
All supermarket groups are, however, seeking to source more from Britain and looking into alternative transport for produce sourced from Europe, including using ferries directly from Spain and increasing stock from the Netherlands.
Shares in Tesco and Sainsbury's both closed down nearly 3%, while No. 4 Morrisons closed down over 1%.
Britain's Food and Drink Federation warned the crisis had the potential to cause serious disruption to Christmas fresh food supplies and exports of food and drink.
"Continental truckers will not want to travel here if they have a real fear of getting marooned," it said.
The British Retail Consortium, which groups more than 170 major retailers, said any prolonged French border closure would be a problem in the final days before a Brexit transition period with the European Union ends.
That deadline meant freight transport was running at near record levels as British companies stockpiled.
Industries beyond food and consumer goods also fear disruption from even a relatively short travel ban.
"Once all the vehicles are out of place it will take time to rebalance the system," an aerospace executive said.
(Reporting by James Davey, additional reporting by Tim Hepher; Editing by Kate Holton, Alexander Smith and Mark Potter)