One of the UK’s main ports is “busier than ever” with food and NHS supplies, its director has said, and there is no reason for concern about goods getting through.
Mike Sellers said imports arriving at Portsmouth International Port are up by 10% since the Covid-19 crisis began, with one ferry firm opening a new route to enable extra supplies to enter the country.
In a bid to reassure the public, Mr Sellers said the supply lines to Europe are open and working well.
He told the PA news agency: “You see the reports of supermarket shelves being empty and stockpiling but the goods are still coming through.
“Nothing has changed in terms of goods; in fact, we are busier than ever and there is plenty of food coming through for everybody in the supermarkets.”
He added: “The message we are trying to get out because of this panic-buying is that there is no restriction on the movement of potential goods, which includes fresh produce for the supermarkets.”
Mr Sellers said the port would normally see two million ferry passengers travelling through each year, but this had completely stopped after the final repatriation sailings last week and he predicted there would be no passenger sailings for up to six months.
However, he said its main operator, Brittany Ferries, is still operating daily freight-only sailings to Caen, St Malo and Santander, with a new service to Cherbourg running to meet demand for imports.
Mr Sellers added: “There are restrictions around passengers and movement of people but certainly not the movement of trade of goods, and Portsmouth is very much about fresh produce, NHS supplies, lifeline goods to the Channel Islands.
“Brittany Ferries are one of the freight carriers that are essential for medical supplies to the NHS, what is referred to as category one freight, and they carry a lot of fresh produce from places like Spain and things like cauliflowers and cabbages from the Brittany region. All that is continuing.”
He said imports are not only coming from Europe but around the world, including from banana suppliers, with Portsmouth receiving 50% of the country’s bananas.
— Mike Sellers (@mikesellersPIP) March 24, 2020
Mr Sellers said the port is operating at 90% staffing levels and that, when Covid-19 screening becomes available to key workers outside the NHS, this will help reduce the number of 14-day absences among his staff.
He also said the port is struggling to find sufficient supplies of cleaning products, face masks for the port’s pilots, and other PPE, and had appealed to the local resilience forum for assistance in sourcing them.
Mr Sellers said Portsmouth is crucial for the Channel Islands, providing 95% of their imports, and if the port was to close, the supermarket shelves there would be empty within 48 hours.
“It is essential that ports do remain open. There is this emergency Bill so, if there aren’t enough Border Force staff, the Government could close ports, they would look at non-essential ports – it would be highly unlikely that Portsmouth would close.”
Looking ahead, he added: “I suspect the travel industry will be the last one to start to bounce back as a result of this, so I think the prospect for us, we will be a freight only port for the foreseeable future. I would say three to six months and beyond that, once the confidence is out there, and there is the ability to screen or even vaccines, it might be 12 months before we see passengers increase.”