Covid and Christmas are to blame for this chaos – NOT Brexit, writes ROSS CLARK


For some diehard Remainers, the images are a vision of what is to come after Britain leaves the European Union – especially if No Deal is in play.

Snaking queues of lorries on the approach road to Dover port and far beyond; shipping containers piling up on docksides; a logjam of goods for distribution, from furniture and bikes to toys, hi-tech gadgets and car parts, amid rumours of food left rotting where it is offloaded.

Such is the mounting chaos in UK ports right now that there are fears that Christmas will be ruined for millions of families who won’t get the goods and gifts they have ordered in time, while food prices soar because supermarkets are without stock to replenish shelves.

The cause is not, however, Brexit. Instead, a potent combination of events is to blame.

A potent combination of events have combined to put Britain’s ports under huge strain but Brexit is not to blame. Pictured: Lorries queue in Dover on December 11

Firstly and most importantly, the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted international shipping from Asia, and there is a shortage of containers in China because empty ones have not been returned from ports around the world.

At the same time, anxious British consumers have begun stockpiling goods – leading to increased demand from suppliers – ahead of a possible No Deal Brexit. Demand has also risen because of Christmas.

To further complicate matters, there are unusually large incoming shipments of PPE to be dealt with dockside, plus delays for freight lorries at the Channel Tunnel. In addition, the dockside workforce has been hammered by illness or the need to isolate because of exposure to the virus.

All of these factors have combined to put Britain’s ports under huge strain. Some ships are now by passing our ports altogether and heading instead for Rotterdam.

Felixstowe, which handles 40 per cent of UK container traffic, has been hardest hit, but problems are spreading to Southampton and London Gateway.

Companies including Apple, fashion chains Primark and River Island, sofa firm DFS and the folding-bicycle manufacturer Brompton have all warned that their products now face lengthy delays and, in some cases, may not arrive here for many weeks.

Honda announced this week it had suspended car production because of a shortage of imported parts.

For Felixstowe, the biggest problem appears to be the containers of PPE for the NHS and care homes which the Government’s freight forwarders have been slow to move out of the port. At one point there were 11,000 containers of PPE sitting on the dockside, although port authorities now say the backlog will be cleared by the end of this week.

Such is the mounting chaos in UK ports right now that there are fears that Christmas will be ruined for millions of families who won’t get the goods and gifts they have ordered in time. Pictured: A lorry driver reacts as he queues to enter the port of Dover

Such is the mounting chaos in UK ports right now that there are fears that Christmas will be ruined for millions of families who won’t get the goods and gifts they have ordered in time. Pictured: A lorry driver reacts as he queues to enter the port of Dover

Some 2000 extra trucks are passing through each day, the rise coming especially in the direction of the UK

Some 2000 extra trucks are passing through each day, the rise coming especially in the direction of the UK

A Channel Tunnel spokesman, meanwhile, is blaming the ‘sheer volume of traffic from stockpiling, pre-Christmas build-up and transporting medical supplies and vaccines for Covid care’.

Some 2000 extra trucks are passing through each day, the rise coming especially in the direction of the UK.

Throw into the mix a traffic managing system that has done little to ease congestion and it’s no wonder chaos has ensued.

The pictures this week of long tailbacks in Dover were the direct result of an operation called the Traffic Access Protocol (TAP). This controls traffic lights on the A20 to avoid overcrowding in the Kentish coastal town – and blocks the main trunk road to the town instead.

After TAP was lifted yesterday, traffic began flowing freely again.

At the heart of this crisis, however, is the pandemic’s impact on shipping traffic from China and the Far East, which is affecting ports around the world. Demand has surged as businesses restock after lockdowns and consumers start spending again.

There are unusually large incoming shipments of PPE to be dealt with dockside.  At one point there were 11,000 containers of PPE sitting on the dockside, although port authorities now say the backlog will be cleared by the end of this week. Pictured: Shipping containers pile up on dockside in Southampton

There are unusually large incoming shipments of PPE to be dealt with dockside.  At one point there were 11,000 containers of PPE sitting on the dockside, although port authorities now say the backlog will be cleared by the end of this week. Pictured: Shipping containers pile up on dockside in Southampton

Companies caught out when Chinese factories closed down in January as Covid first struck are now moving away from so-called just-in-time supply lines to stock up on key components and other goods, further boosting demand.

At America’s busiest cargo complex, LA-Long Beach in California, 20 cargo ships lie anchored, unable to offload their shipments. In Australia, a long-running industrial dispute between dock workers and the port authorities is adding to the long delays in offloading and distributing goods.

Britain is one of the most enthusiastic trading nations in the world: A small, densely populated island with a limited number of very compact ports. There are always vast numbers of lorries and containers coming into and out of the country, linked by a barely adequate road system.

The Government has taken a number of steps to alleviate hold-ups when the new customs checks come into force on January 1 in post-Brexit Britain.

An inland customs facility is being built just outside Ashford in Kent to process lorries before they reach Dover or the Channel Tunnel.

This weekend, trials will begin of a new barrier system to allow contraflow traffic on the M20 in the event that lorries have to be held on the motorway.

If no trade deal is agreed with the EU before the transition period ends on January 1, there will certainly be some problems at British ports.

But the bigger picture is that as the global economy is starting to recover from a very sharp contraction, we are only beginning to realise just how much it relies on freight transport.

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