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Felixstowe backlog risks delays in run-up to Christmas for £1.5bn of imports

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Almost £1.5bn of goods being imported into the UK will be hit by shipping delays in the run-up to Christmas if the backlog at Felixstowe continues until the festive season, research has suggested.

Clothing imports would be most affected by congestion at ports, the analysis by the risk modelling company Russell Group found, including products shipped to the UK from Asia by some of the high street’s best-known brands.

Retailers including Asda, Tesco, John Lewis and Marks & Spencer are estimated to be among the most exposed to the port disruption, as they import large amounts of clothing.

Related: UK air freight bookings soar as firms seek to bypass port backlogs

Russell Group said clothing worth £46.2m imported by the supermarket chain Asda could be affected by the port delays. For Tesco the figure was £33.7m, and for John Lewis and M&S it was more than £29.3m each.

The analysis was based on 10 weeks of trade between 12 October and Christmas Day, and was modelled on 2020 figures. It came as large shipping companies reported having to divert some of their biggest vessels away from Felixstowe – Britain’s largest container port – to dock on the continent instead.

There are delays for large ships docking at Felixstowe, which handles about 40% of containers coming in and out of the UK, while goods are taking longer to leave the port to continue their journey to customers owing to a backlog of containers caused by a shortage of HGV drivers.

The world’s largest container shipping company, the Danish firm AP Møller-Maersk, called Felixstowe one of its biggest global challenges on account of the congestion.

The problems at the Suffolk port, which also became gridlocked in late 2020, have come at the start of the busiest period of the year for shipping firms and ports, with retailers importing higher quantities of goods from east Asia to sell during the crucial Christmas trading season.

Maersk said congestion at Felixstowe had been building for the past two weeks, meaning the company had to dock as many as one in three of its large vessels at continental ports instead, including Rotterdam.

In addition, the average time a shipping container spends in the port – known as the “dwell time” – has doubled from four-and-a-half days in 2020 to nine days.

Logistics industry analysts said congestion at ports meant delays and higher costs for consumers and businesses. This is especially problematic in Britain, where about 90% of imports arrive by sea.

However, Felixstowe has reported that congestion has been easing in recent days and it had more space for import containers than at any time since the start of July.

Oliver Dowden, the Conservative party co-chair, welcomed the news that the situation at Felixstowe was improving, but said consumers should shop normally for Christmas.

“There is clearly a challenging problem, particularly with HGV drivers and not just here,” he told Sky News.

“It is across Europe, Poland, the US, even China has this challenge. This is why we have been taking steps to address it, whether it is, for example, with training, 5,000 more places for training HGV drivers, making the process more flexible.”

Despite this, industry experts do not expect the port backlog to clear until early 2022, given the rush by retailers to import goods before the festive season and the Chinese lunar new year holiday – which takes place in early February – when factories across the country close for at least a week, if not longer.

Problems at Felixstowe will only be a short-term blip if the port can clear the backlog in the way it says it is doing, according to Nick Bailey, the head of research at Transport Intelligence.

“The longer-term challenge will come if sea freight carriers decide to skip UK ports more often. That would change the way a lot of UK imports work,” Bailey said, although he added that he considered this was unlikely to be the case at the moment.

Suki Basi, the managing director and founder of Russell Group, said it was important to assess the effects of disruption or blockages at ports on global trade.

“This can be done by analysing trade flows at country, route, operator, ship, commodity and company levels. This approach allows underwriters and corporates to assess their exposures on a timely, granular basis,” Basi said.

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