Ships have had to be held at anchor – with return sailings missed – as the Humber ports face a capacity challenge never seen due to the Brexit rush in a Covid crisis.
The final fortnight of the year is normally flat as all required for Christmas is already in the country, but the January 1 transition period – exacerbated by the pandemic – is causing huge bottlenecks, with onward haulage the key issue.
At DFDS in Immingham, two vessels have had to wait in the Humber approaches as the quaysides are cleared – ahead of any potential re-routing due to French border closures.
Andrew Byrne, managing director, said “We have already seen in the past 10 days unseen levels of import cargo for weeks 50 and 51. We’ve had to send a couple of sailings back to anchor, we are seeing the impact of customers trying to beat the end of the transition period without then a migration of traffic because they cannot come through the Channel.
“We haven’t seen it yet, but if there is a big push for it, I’m not sure how we would manage it. We are operating at 136 per cent capacity, and that’s not a sustainable figure.
“We have 2,700 trailer spaces on the quay, we had a vessel coming in with 250 units and we had zero space. It could come in and put the ramp down, but there’s nowhere for the cargo to go, so it was left at anchor until we could get the existing cargo out.
“Normally we move cargo in one or two days, we are now seeing three, four or five days.”
DFDS has led Brexit planning with the authorities, as the biggest single terminal operator for such traffic at the UK’s largest port.
It worked with government on the publication of the plans for lorry holding areas, from holding bays on converted car parks away from the port to whole motorway lanes.
Mr Byrne said: “It is on a par with the first deadline – March 2019 – we had one-in one-out back then and it is the first time since then it is back on. We are definitely seeing a similar level of activity and customer behaviour, putting any cargo they can into the country before January 1, to beat any new customs process, tariffs and duties. What is different this time round is haulage availability on the roads because of Covid and travel restrictions. A lot of continental hauliers drive through and work in the UK, now there is much more unaccompanied cargo, and then not enough drivers to deliver it.
“We are looking at 1,000 units a day – we don’t have 1,000 drivers. That’s what we are seeing differently, and what we didn’t have in March 2019 – we didn’t have Covid as a factor.”
Pleas for customers to send only vital goods have been made, with much of the country not having non-essential retail or restaurants and bars open.
“The risk is not having ships come in,” Mr Byrne added. “We have gone from one extreme to another”.
The final fortnight of the year is usually one of the quietest periods for the shipping inustry as anything that would be on the shelves would already be in the country. When the initial deadline was moved to October 31, 2019, it prompted concerns as that is when retailers ramp-up orders for goods for the key period.
Dafydd Williams, port operator ABP’s head of policy, communications and economic development on the Humber, said: “Last week was our busiest week for over a year – we are seeing an awful lot of trade flowing through the ports and for a combination of reasons.
“It could be people stockholding, it could be a big push in the run-up to Christmas and could also be a reflection of concerns about what is happening in other parts of the UK, and maybe a degree of re-routing.”
The Humber has no direct links with France – the only country to prevent freight movement – with all other nations it trades with allowing accompanied drivers to continue.
Mr Williams said that while the ports were busy, road traffic was moving freely, aided by staggered sailing times.
“It has been heavy over the last week, but it is has not stopped, we’ve not had queues,” he added.
P&O has suspended passengers services from Hull to Rotterdam, but both Rotterdam and Zeebrugge are being served for freight from Hull.
Final supplies of seafood to one of the last remaining markets at Grimsby had got through unhindered on the Sunday Eimskip service from Iceland to Immingham.
A strong market this morning will be followed by a final one of an interrupted 2020 tomorrow. Norwegian salmon has seen some interruption though, with a route south to Holland before crossing, Martyn Boyers, chief executive of Grimsby Fish Dock Enterprises said.