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Firms sound port chaos alarm as Brexit checks threaten meat and salad supplies

Tom Belger
·Finance and policy reporter
·7-min read
A view shows the Port of Felixstowe amid the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at Port Felixstowe, Suffolk, Britain September 28, 2020. REUTERS/Matthew Childs
The Port of Felixstowe has faced severe disruption. Photo: REUTERS/Matthew Childs.

The UK government has been warned the current port chaos could be repeated next year as new Brexit checks come into force, threatening to make some food supply routes “unviable.”

Port operators say supermarket meat and salad supplies could face major disruption, accusing the government of an “alarming lack of urgency” upgrading border facilities and plans for overly heavy-handed checks.

Officials have even reportedly spent industry calls focusing on “random issues” like handling stray cats in containers, to the frustration of listening port bosses still awaiting sign-off for infrastructure plans.

Richard Ballantyne, chief executive of the British Ports Association (BPA), said the Felixstowe disruption hitting the headlines was a “timely reminder” of the need for everything to be working properly as Brexit shakes up UK-EU trade next year.

READ MORE: Ports chaos hits firms’ supplies as Honda forced to halt production

Rising container volumes linked to the pandemic have hit port operators worldwide. But Brexit stockpiling, heavier pre-Christmas trade and uncollected PPE shipments have heaped particular pressure on some UK ports. Disruption to parts supplies at Felixstowe has left bicycle firm Brompton unable to meet demand and forced carmaker Honda to pause production this week.

Fresh problems are expected in a just a few weeks’ time as the Brexit transition period ends, with Tesco among the firms reported to have stockpiled long-life goods.

WATCH: Tesco ‘stockpiling long-life goods’ in case of Brexit disruption

UK exporters and lorries will face new checks on agricultural and animal products at EU and even Northern Irish ports from 1 January. One food and drink chief told MPs this week just-published guidance was “too late, baby,” and there are fears mainland imports could face disruption too if backlogs at such ports hit traffic headed for Britain.

But a greater concern for parts of the logistics industry is the similar health and safety checks Britain itself plans to impose on food and other imported EU goods. These will be enforced only gradually and take full effect in July, but Ballantyne said he feared infrastructure still won’t be ready and checks will be too rigorously enforced.

READ MORE: UK food may arrive late, ‘tatty’ or not at all over Brexit issues-business chief

In a letter to cabinet office minister Michael Gove last month, seen exclusively by Yahoo Finance UK, the BPA chief warned of a “severe impact” on trade and particularly food supplies.

“Without pragmatism at borders we could see major disruption and lasting impacts. Traffic has been entering unhindered for some decades but now we could see traffic into a number of our gateways face major disruption and at worse become unviable,” he said.

“Some ports are being told by customers that these volumes of interventions could ‘kill off’ particular trades,” he wrote, highlighting salad and meat supplies for supermarkets and fresh-cut flowers.

Ballantyne added in an interview that products like Dutch tulips could deteriorate by the time they reach florists if left for hours waiting for checks.

WATCH: Christmas plus Brexit ‘could mean empty shelves’

He said there was an “appetite to get things done quickly” to upgrade facilities and prepare among port operators. But the chief executive and other industry sources expect to find out only this week how much each port will receive from the government’s £200m ($262m) port infrastructure fund.

“It is very late. If you’ve got to go through processes like planning approvals, getting contractors in, there’s not much time. It’s fair to say certain facilities won’t be completed in time—it’s whether or not they’re prepared enough to handle things or are still building.”

“It’s amazing we still don’t know exact what the nature of the trade deal with the EU would be. In normal circumstances you wouldn’t start to prepare for something when you don’t know what you’re preparing for.”

The level of checks could be reduced if the UK and EU agree to mutually recognise each other’s standards regimes, either inside or outside a wider trade agreement. But this has not been secured so far.

Firms were therefore “going in blind” with their funding applications, uncertain on the level of facilities they need, according to Ballantyne, who believes the pot will be oversubscribed. “That’s caused a lot of problems.”

The BPA’s letter also claimed government agencies had been slow, “uncoordinated” and “operating in silos” in signing off various infrastructure funding pots and safety measures. Such delays were preventing some major ports urgently building new facilities they need, according to the trade body.

READ MORE: UK hopes for millions of Pfizer vaccines by end of year despite supply chain issues

Officials are accused meanwhile of focusing too much on “micro” details, and even concentrating in one call on stray cats—“an extreme event that is never likely to occur.”

“Signing off the final specifications is becoming fraught with impractical challenges,” added Ballantyne.

Firms fear authorities will apply the same “belt and braces” approach to health checks on EU goods as they do to products from far-flung countries, despite Britain currently applying the same high standards as EU states. This could itself require a “high level of resourcing and lead to huge amount of freight disruption,” the letter went on.

Richard Ballantyne, head of the British Ports Association. Photo: BPA
Richard Ballantyne, head of the British Ports Association. Photo: BPA

The British Retail Consortium had warned in 2018 that stricter rules, known formally as sanitary and phitosanitary (SPS) checks, were “not feasible” if applied as they are for non-EU countries. It told MPs they could take up to two days, reducing shelf life, driving up food waste and even making it “unproductive to put it into store.”

Farming chiefs also told Yahoo Finance UK earlier this year checks were “pretty scary,” meaning rotting fruit and vegetables, empty shelves and rising prices.

Ballantyne said he had not received a response to his letter, sent last month. The BPA is still hoping the government will take a more “realistic” and “pragmatic” attitude to signing off and enforcing check plans, and even delay checks altogether if infrastructure is still not ready.

The trade body is less worried about Felixstowe disruption’s impact on households in the run-up to Christmas however, despite Labour warning overnight it “threatens Christmas orders.”

“It may take some weeks to clear, but it’s not going to go on forever and it’s certainly not going to impact Christmas,” added Ballantyne. He said pigs-in-blankets, Christmas trees, presents and other festive goods had largely been imported already or came via other routes.

Not all ports have been affected by disruption either, or share industry leaders’ fears of Brexit chaos. Charles Hammond, chief executive of Forth Ports, which runs eight ports including Tilbury and Grangemouth, will say it is “ready for Brexit” in an announcement to shippers and cargo owners later this week, shared with Yahoo Finance UK.

READ MORE: UK risks ‘empty shelves’ as border checks and immigration reforms hit supplies

It said Tilbury, just outside London in Essex, had seen a 35% jump in European trade this year, and its Belgium route has seen a 7% rise in the past six months. The increases are believed to reflect firms increasingly looking to avoid bottlenecks in Kent.

The department for transport has said this week that current disruption is “not a problem unique to the UK,” with container capacity issues worldwide.

“The department and partners across government are working closely with the freight industry to work through the challenges some of our ports are facing. Resilient supply chains and free flowing freight are integral to the UK economy and we will do everything we can to resolve the situation as quickly as possible,” a spokesperson said on Wednesday over problems at Felixstowe.

The cabinet office and department for transport have been approached for further comment.