Europe blockade pushes UK closer to food shortages at Christmas

Saleha Riaz
·5-min read

Watch: Vehicles turned away from Port of Dover as France closes border

The UK may face Christmas food shortages after several European countries, crucially France, banned travel from the UK. One of Britain’s largest supermarkets also sounded the alarm that fresh fruit and vegetable shortages could happen within days.

The raft of countries across the world, not just Europe, that have put in bans from flights or travel from the UK were responding to prime minister Boris Johnson’s announcement that London, the Southeast, and East England would be in Tier 4 lockdown due to fears over a new variant of the coronavirus, which could be 70% more infectious.

Responding to yesterday evening’s suspension of accompanied freight traffic from the UK to France, FDF CEO Ian Wright told Yahoo Finance UK: “Yesterday’s suspension of accompanied freight traffic from the UK to France has the potential to cause serious disruption to UK post-Christmas fresh food supplies – and exports of UK food and drink.

“Continental truckers will not want to travel here if they have a real fear of getting marooned. The Government must very urgently persuade the French government to exempt accompanied freight from its ban.”

France’s block will last for at least two days and has forced Dover’s ferry port, Britain's main link to the continent, and the Eurotunnel to close to traffic departing from the UK.

Around 75% of dry cargo by value in the UK is handled by just seven ports, the largest being Southampton, Felixstowe and Dover, making it the UK's third largest port by value, a 2018 report on the UK port system by think tank Policy Exchange found.

“Half of the trade passing through the sea ports of the UK is customs free trade with the other 27 members of the EU. Dover is the dominant port for EU trade, accounting for 22% of the total (exports plus imports),” the report said.

Chart: Policy Exchange
Dover is the UK's third largest port by value. Chart: Policy Exchange

On Monday, Johnson is holding emergency talks with his cabinet to tackle the impact that widespread travel bans could have on food supply as well other industries.

According to The Guardian, citing the UK transport department, the “UK government is preparing to open a disused airport in Kent as a lorry park to ease disruption after the overnight French border closures.”

“Manston airport was a back up plan for Brexit congestion contingencies but has now become a priority because construction on the lorry park the government was building in Ashford to cater for gridlock in January is not complete.”

On Saturday, Johnson announced stricter coronavirus measures in London, the South East and East of England amid concerns about the spread of the mutant strain of coronavirus.

Lorries line up on the M20 motorway to use the BREXIT Dover Tap contraflow system into the Eastern Dock of the Port of Dover where the cross channel port is situated with ferries departing here to go to Calais in France on the 18th December 2020, Dover, Kent, United Kingdom. Photo: Andrew Aitchison / In pictures via Getty Images
Lorries line up on the M20 motorway to use the BREXIT Dover Tap contraflow system into the Eastern Dock of the Port of Dover where the cross channel port is situated with ferries departing here to go to Calais in France on the 18th December 2020, Dover, Kent, United Kingdom. Photo: Andrew Aitchison / In pictures via Getty Images

A number of countries — including Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Austria and Belgium— have announced that they will ban travel from the UK due to fears over the new variant.

Johnson is now holding emergency discussions with senior ministers and officials to prevent Christmas food shortages, amid fears that some imported food items could run out in as little as two weeks.

A Number 10 spokesperson told Sky News the talks are "to discuss the situation regarding international travel, in particular the steady flow of freight into and out of the UK."

They added that "Further meetings are happening... to ensure robust plans are in place."

One major concern is that supplies of food and even the COVID-19 vaccine could be impacted because French hauliers will not travel to the UK if they have no way of going back.

READ MORE: Countries across the world ban flights from UK due to fast-spreading new COVID-19 strain

Businesses may fear their drivers would be stuck in Britain, and that goods will be blocked from leaving or entering.

Sainsbury's (SBRY.L) has said it will face shortages on some of its products if the situation is not quickly resolved.

In an emailed statement to Yahoo Finance, the supermarket giant said: "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.”

It added that it is sourcing everything it can from the UK and looking into alternative transport for product sourced from Europe.

"We hope the UK and French governments can come to a mutually agreeable solution that prioritises the immediate passage of produce and any other food at the ports,” it urged.

Andrew Opie, director of food & sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, explained that “while goods can enter from France, few haulage firms will be willing to send trucks and drivers across to the UK without a guarantee they can return to the EU in a timely manner. This is a key supply route for fresh produce at this time of year: the channel crossings see 10,000 trucks passing daily during peak periods such as in the run up to Christmas.”

He urged the government “to find a pragmatic solution to this as soon as possible.”

Transport minister Grant Shapps said on Twitter that “following the French Government's announcement it will not accept any passengers arriving from the UK for the next 48 hrs, we're asking the public and particularly hauliers not to travel to Kent ports or other routes to France. We expect significant disruption in the area.”

“My department is urgently working with Highways England and Kent Council on contingency measures to minimise traffic disruption in the area,” he added.

This latest development will come as a blow to UK businesses which are already dealing with stockpiling before the end of the year, when the transition period with the European Union ends and new customs rules come into effect.

WATCH: Pound and FTSE 100 fall sharply as markets react to Europe's UK travel bans