Lancashire exporters worried after European border restrictions due to emergence of new strain of coronavirus

Exporters and hauliers across Lancashire have  a new worry besides the Brexit uncertainty - the emergence of a new strain of coronavirus has seen borders closed to UK travellers.

Monday, 21st December 2020, 12:47 pm
Updated Monday, 21st December 2020, 2:46 pm

Supermarkets have warned that some goods such as salads and citrus fruits may be in short supply over the festive period as a result and Lancashire business leaders said the exports situation was very worrying.

Thousands of lorries that were meant to travel across the English Channel on Monday were told to stay away from Kent ports. Trucks were left queueing on the M20 in Kent.

HGVs turning up at Dover on Monday morning were greeted with signs saying “French borders closed”, and were being turned away.

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Police were turning hauliers and others away from Dover after the French decided to close their borders to UK vehicles following the emergence of a new strain of coronavirus

It came as the south-east of England grapples with a new variant of coronavirus that could be up to 70 per cent more transmissible than the original strain.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the 48 hour ban on accompanied freight was “slightly surprising”.

But he said that “probably about 20 per cent” of goods going into and out of the country passes through Kent. Most goods actually come in and out by unaccompanied containers and those will continue to flow.”

However, French transport minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari has said a protocol is being worked on at a European Union-wide level “to ensure that movement from the UK can resume”.

Hauliers queuing on the M20 near Dover after the French decided to close their borders to UK vehicles following the emergence of a new strain of coronavirus

Alex Veitch, general manager at Logistics UK – formerly known as the Freight Transport Association – said he is “genuinely not worried” about food shortages, and urged people not to panic-buy.

He told the PA news agency: “But at the same time, this does need sorting out because after a while there will potentially be fewer trucks coming this way (from Europe) because the haulage firms that provide that service will be very worried about their driver being stranded on the UK side.”

But he added UK export firms were likely to be “pulling their hair out” as they rush to deliver goods to mainland Europe ahead of December 31 – the end of the post-Brexit transition period.

In Lancashire, Geoff Mason, policy manager at the North and Western Chamber of Commerce said: “This news is deeply concerning and the situation needs to be resolved with the utmost urgency.

“Speaking to our members involved in road haulage, Christmas week is normally a quiet week but not so this year. With the end of the transition period coming up and no deal yet in place many are trying to get extra products into the EU before tariffs come in to effect.

“Equally companies relying on imports from the EU may now struggle to get things across before extra costs are imposed. With ‘just-in-time’ supply lines in place for many industries any delays could have a serious impact on manufacturers being able to keep up with production.

“The chaotic scenes serve as a timely reminder of the importance of seamless logistics between the UK and the EU. With a deal yet to be struck it is essential that the Government takes heed and fights to ensure the smoothest possible arrangements are in place for cross-border trade.

"If a deal is agreed without time to be ratified before the end of the transition period then something needs to be in place to prevent problems while the deal passes through the UK and European parliaments.”

Phil Simpson, one of the Directors of Preston-based Freightlink which organises passage and documentation for hauliers said as soon as the news broke, customers started trying to switch crossing from France to North Sea routes.

He said: “The Irish Sea and North Sea routes are still open, it was just the French that closed the border. The thing is, 85 per cent of that freight at Dover will just go straight through France destined for other countries so the hauliers should not have posed a threat to France.

“We have been incredibly busy. We had people trying to re-book straightaway but the North Sea routes were already full to beyond Christmas and are likely to be so to New Year.

“Once the crossing at Dover is closed the whole logistics system is strangulated. It is a serious situation.

“We had already seen ferry figures up in November by 15 per cent compared to last year and I expect it will be even higher in December. Without a doubt people are stockpiling ahead of the Brexit transition period ending.”

He said businesses were worried about a no a deal situation between the EU and Britain, but even if there was one agreed, the paperwork and tariffs on goods transported would probably add around £100 to each load.

David Marks, managing director of Bilsborrow-based fertilisers and agronomy specialist Levity Crop Science which exports world wide, said: “Despite ongoing issues with port congestion and associated knock-on impacts to lead times and delivery collections, Levity CropScience has had another good year in both home and export markets.

“Increased port congestion as a result of COVID and Brexit issues is a continual worry for us, since our smart fertilisation products are needed at the start of the growing season and any delays means that buyers could no longer need the product and will simply return the shipment, until it is required for the following year’s growing season.

“Maintaining an efficient, seamless, on-time port of departure process is crucial for our long term growth.”

Patrick Hayton, from the Midland Fish Company based at Fleetwood, said: “I got into work at 1am and the first email was from our transport company saying there would be no service to France, which was concerning.

"Exports (of coley) to France account for only about 10 per cent of our business, but I would like to see a resolution. As for Brexit, I would not like a no-deal situation. I would like to see a deal in which all fish caught in UK waters had to be landed in the UK an auctioned there.

"They could then still go to Europe but it would give a boost to some of the UK ports which have struggled in recent years.”

Ferry operators too from the North West are urging people not to come to the ports for some destinations.

Stena Line said: “The Irish Government has issued a ban on all ferry passengers arriving from Britain into the Republic of Ireland with effect from midnight Sunday 20 December until midnight Tuesday 22 December 2020.

“Only essential supply chain workers with proof of such status are permitted to travel.

“The Dutch Government has issued an immediate ban on all ferry passengers including essential supply chain workers arriving from Britain to Holland until further notice. Please do not come to the port during this period as you will not be permitted to travel.”

Salad leaves and citrus fruits could be missing from supermarket shelves as a result of restrictions on UK-France trade, Sainsbury’s has warned.

The supermarket giant said France’s ban on freight hauliers from the UK could affect food supplies but assured customers that crucial Christmas dinner supplies are available and already in the country.

A Sainsbury’s spokesman said: “All products for the Great British Christmas lunch are already in the country and we have plenty of these.

“If nothing changes, we will start to see gaps over the coming days on lettuce, some salad leaves, cauliflowers, broccoli and citrus fruit – all of which are imported from the Continent at this time of year.”

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