The backlog at the UK’s largest container port is “improving”, so Britons should shop normally for Christmas, a cabinet minister has said, after reports of large vessels bringing goods from Asia being diverted away.
Oliver Dowden, the Conservative party co-chair, told Sky News that authorities at Felixstowe had said the situation was improving at the Suffolk port, which handles about 40% of containers coming in and out of the UK.
Dowden’s comments came after the world’s largest container shipping company, the Danish firm AP Møller-Maersk, called the port one of its biggest global challenges owing to a backlog of containers caused by a shortage of HGV drivers.
The problems at Felixstowe, which also became gridlocked in late 2020, have come at the start of the busiest period of the year for shipping firms and ports, with retailers importing higher quantities of goods from east Asia to sell during the Christmas trading season.
“There is clearly a challenging problem, particularly with HGV drivers and not just here,” Dowden said. “It is across Europe, Poland, the US, even China has this challenge. This is why we have been taking steps to address it, whether it is, for example, with training, 5,000 more places for training HGV drivers, making the process more flexible.”
Maersk said congestion at Felixstowe had been building for the past two weeks, meaning the company had to dock as many as one in three of its large vessels at continental ports including Rotterdam instead.
The goods have been then unloaded and brought to Britain on smaller ships, which do not have to wait as long for a berth at Felixstowe as larger vessels.
In addition, the average time a shipping container spends in the port – known as the “dwell time” – has doubled from four-and-a-half days in 2020 to nine days.
Felixstowe has reported that congestion has been easing in recent days and it had more space for import containers than at any time since the start of July.
However, industry experts do not expect the port backlog to clear until early 2022, given the rush by retailers to import goods before the festive season and the Chinese lunar new year holiday – which takes place in early February – when factories across the country close for at least a week, if not longer.
Logistics industry analysts warn that congestion at ports means delays and likely higher costs for consumers and businesses, which is especially problematic in Britain, where about 90% of imports arrive by sea.
Problems at Felixstowe will only be a short-term blip if the port can clear the backlog in the way it says it is doing, according to Nick Bailey, head of research at Transport Intelligence.
“The longer-term challenge will come if sea freight carriers decide to skip UK ports more often. That would change the way a lot of UK imports work,” Bailey said, although he added that he considered this was unlikely to be the case at the moment.
A spokesperson for Associated British Ports, which runs and operates 21 ports around Britain, said: “ABP is aware of the challenges some UK ports are facing. However, ABP’s significant investment in infrastructure, people, equipment and technology has meant that we are well-placed to manage the present challenges.
“Our teams at all locations are working hard with our customers and other supply chain partners, and we can confirm that all of ABP’s 21 ports are running without any delays or disruption to services.”
Official figures showed that shortages of lorry drivers and broader supply chain disruption in the UK were not just having an impact domestically, but also weighed heavily on international trade in August.
The Office for National Statistics said goods exports fell by £1.3bn, or 4.6%, from a month earlier, driven by a sharp decline in shipments of cars and mechanical power generators to the EU and the rest of the world.
Car production has come under pressure from global shortages of microchips, holding back export volumes. However, the ONS said staff shortages due to self-isolation and a significant lack of HGV drivers had also dragged down exports.
William Bain, head of trade policy at the British Chambers of Commerce, said firms were becoming increasingly worried about further trade disruption caused by Brexit.
“Concerns are rising about tariffs or loss of trade facilitation measures if there is a major deterioration in EU-UK relationship over the next year. This would knock down a still fragile set of import and export data on EU-UK trade,” he said.