Britain’s fresh food supply at risk until Dover backlog cleared

FILE PHOTO: Lorries are parked on M20 motorway near Ashford
FILE PHOTO: A lorry blocks M20 motorway where trucks queue to port Dover, as EU countries impose a travel ban from the UK following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, near Ashford, Britain, December 23, 2020. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

December 23, 2020

By James Davey

LONDON (Reuters) – British supplies of some fresh food, mainly fruit and vegetables, are at risk of running out until a backlog of trucks at the port of Dover is cleared and links with France return to normal, the UK retail industry said on Wednesday.

A partial blockade by France to try to contain a new highly infectious coronavirus variant has left thousands of trucks stranded in Dover, Britain’s main gateway to Europe, in the run-up to Christmas.

Paris and London agreed late on Tuesday that drivers carrying a negative COVID-19 test result could board ferries for Calais.

A British minister said the military would start testing drivers, but that it would take time to clear the backlog, hammering Britain’s most important trade route for food days before it leaves the European Union’s orbit.

“It is good news for consumers as the French borders have now reopened, however it is essential that lorries get moving across the border as quickly as possible,” said Andrew Opie, director of food & sustainability at the British Retail Consortium (BRC), which represents more than 170 major retailers including the big supermarkets.

“Until the backlog is cleared and supply chains return to normal, we anticipate issues with the availability of some fresh goods,” he said.

The BRC and Britain’s two biggest supermarket groups, Tesco and Sainsbury’s, have been warning since Monday that gaps will start to appear on store shelves unless transport ties with mainland Europe were quickly restored.

The main products seen at risk are lettuce, salad leaves, cauliflowers, broccoli, citrus fruit, raspberries and strawberries.

Supermarket groups have said they have plenty of supplies for the Christmas holiday but are concerned about availability next week, particularly if no free trade deal with the EU is secured by Jan. 1.

They are facing record Christmas demand because of COVID-19 restrictions on the hospitality industry and on travel and there are fears of panic buying.

However, they have said customer behaviour has in the main been rational so far with shoppers supplementing their normal Christmas purchases with one or two extra items, such as pasta and toilet roll.

Despite this, Tesco has reintroduced some customer buying limits on toilet roll, hand wash, rice and eggs.

It already had limits on flour, dried pasta, baby wipes and anti-bacterial wipes.