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Supply crisis: Maersk diverts big cargo ships from UK as Felixstowe port fills up due to HGV container backlog

‘It was absolutely foreseeable and the government hasn’t responded’, says Starmer

Holly Bancroft
Tuesday 12 October 2021 20:43 BST
Large vessels are being directed away from the main UK ports
Large vessels are being directed away from the main UK ports (PA)

Supermarkets are searching for alternative ways to bring food into Britain as ships are diverted from the UK’s main port due to congestion.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) said “further disruption” to supply chains may be “unavoidable” after Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping company, said that it was directing big vessels away because main UK ports are chock-a-block.

The congestion is down to a lack of HGV drivers available to move the unloaded containers to free up space.

On a visit to an HGV training centre near Oldham in Greater Manchester, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the shortage was “absolutely foreseeable”.

“We knew when we left the EU that we would need to have a plan B in relation to drivers, we knew because of the pandemic there would be an impact, and here we are in the middle of a crisis and we’ve got, what? A prime minister who’s missing in action.”

Mr Starmer was also caught on camera struggling in an attempt at driving a HGV. After hitting a barrier while reversing the lorry, the Labour MP was told that he would have failed his driving test.

“Well, it’s a big beast, is the lorry, but it was really interesting to drive it. I’m not sure that I’ll be driving to Tesco later on this afternoon to do the deliveries,” Sir Keir told broadcasters.

Maersk has said that it has started to reroute bigger ships away from Felixstowe port in Suffolk, the gate way for 36 per cent of the country’s shipping containers. Instead, goods destined for the UK are being transferred onto small ships, delaying the time it takes for things to arrive.

Lars Mikael Jensen, head of global ocean network at Maersk, told the Financial Times on Monday: “We had to stop operations on a ship because there was nowhere to discharge the containers.

“Felixstowe is among the top two or three worst-hit terminals [globally]. We are having to deviate some of the bigger ships away from Felixstowe and relay some of the smaller ships for the cargo.”

He added: “We did it for a little while over the summer and now we’re starting to do it again.”

The BRC said on Tuesday that the congestion at Felixstowe was another consequence of the ongoing HGV driver shortage. Andrew Opie, the organisation’s director of food and sustainability, explained: “As cargo cannot be removed fast enough, there is a backlog of containers at the ports which are preventing new ships from docking and unloading.”

The organisation, which counts most high street retailers and supermarkets as members, said that “retailers are working closely with suppliers to mitigate issues, including finding alternative routes to bring good into the country, but further disruption may be unavoidable.”

They called on the government to extend the temporary visa scheme to increase the pool of available HGV drivers.

The trade body for UK port operators also said on Tuesday that some ports are managing storage space with “short-term restrictions”.

Tim Morris, chief executive of the UK Major Ports Group (UKMPG), said: “As the UK’s gateways for 95 per cent of trade, ports are the jam in the sandwich between surging, volatile shipping and UK supply chains badly impacting by factors such as HGV driver shortages.”

He said that ports are now working 24/7 and have increased capacity for trucks in a bid to help ease pressures.

He added: “Ports therefore have to manage access to storage space very dynamically in extreme situations. This can mean some very limited short-term restrictions.”

Trade magazine, The Grocer, reported that many shipping containers at Felixstowe are now spending around 10 days at the port before being collected, up from a typical average of four-and-a-half days.

Tesco has already said that it has increased its use of rail freight to try and reduce the impact of driver shortages on stock.

Chief executive, Ken Murphy, said that the supermarket had set a target of delivering 90,000 40ft containers of good a year via trains by the end of 2021, up from about 65,000 at the moment.

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