The Port of Felixstowe handles 40% of the UK's container traffic © Getty Images
The Port of Felixstowe handles 40% of the UK's container traffic © Getty Images

Port disruption threatens Christmas supply chains

16 November 2020

Disruption at the Port of Felixstowe has been branded “a mess” as retailers express concerns about product shortages in the run-up to Christmas.

In an operational notice, the Port of Felixstowe said it was “experiencing a spike in container volumes and dealing with the consequences of the ongoing Covid pandemic”. 

It warned that current high volumes would last until “at least into December and possibly through into the New Year”, and it was “working hard to minimise the impact on daily operations and to maintain vital supply chains”.

The Port of Felixstowe, which is based in Suffolk, is Britain’s largest and busiest container port and handles approximately 40% of all the container traffic coming into and out of the UK.

In a statement Hutchison Ports UK, which owns Felixstowe, blamed disruption at the port on Brexit stockpiling and pressure from the Covid pandemic, according to the BBC. 

It said: “The imbalance in UK trade and Brexit stockpiling exacerbate current operational challenges and we are working with our customers and stakeholders to get through the current congestion.

“Performance at the port remains under pressure due to the Covid pandemic, high levels of import traffic, the large number of empty containers and a large amount of unusually long-stay containers held at the port.”

According to The Guardian, the port is struggling to provide storage for 11,000 containers of personal protective equipment belonging to the government, which is occupying 30% of the inbound container space.

John Roberts, the chief executive of online electrical goods retailer AO.com, told The Guardian: “Felixstowe is a mess at the minute, so there is a lot of product being unloaded elsewhere and redirected by road, and also being redirected through Liverpool.

“Over a third of the product we receive is arriving at the wrong time. That might sound like a very simple thing but when you’re planning labour and bays on warehouses, it adds a phenomenal amount of complexity and quite a bit of cost as well.”

Roberts warned of potential product shortages by the end of this month as retailers gear up for the peak season, but added they will “have a much better picture at the end of November”. 

The British International Freight Association said its members had faced multiple operational difficulties for months at the Port of Felixstowe and increasingly at other ports such as London Gateway and Southampton. 

“Members are incurring significant additional costs as a result of the ongoing disruption to operations, caused by circumstances over which they have no control. We understand that the port authority is responding to the challenges and we hope that those responses are successful,” said a spokesperson.

“We note that the port authority has said that the current high volumes will last at least into December and possibly through into the New Year so we can only hope that the work they are doing to minimise the impact on daily operations and to maintain vital supply chains is effective.”

Dale Patterson, managing director at Exporta, said: "Retailers should always do as much forward planning as possible to help reduce the risk of additional disruption. This means having alternative supply chains as a back-up. If one falls, you have options and can try different routes for getting what you need. Having a ‘plan B’ in place and preparing for all eventualities will help to reduce delays.

"Another solution is to use shipping products that are exempt from additional checks and regulations. For example, using recycled plastic crates instead of wooden pallets can help move goods through the supply chain faster, as they are exempt from ISPM15 rules."

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