Sudden Delivery Disruptions Due to Pandemic Will Not Go Away Any Time Soon
At the end of 2020, chaos in the transport industry ensued after many European countries, including France, decided to ban all travel from the UK. The reason was the rapid outbreak of a new COVID-19 strand. Ultimately, the industry was not ready for such a turn of events. It is incredibly difficult to prepare for what came to pass: in the morning everything started as usual, and then a few hours later, all change and a 180-degree turn.
A couple of steps short of humanitarian disaster and incalculable damage to the environment
At the end of the year around Christmas, up to 10,000 trucks headed from Dover to Calais via the Eurotunnel. When France suddenly closed its border with the UK, all trucks and their drivers that were still in Britain got stranded in the ports without any information about when they would be able to continue their journeys, and without food or access to essential hygiene facilities. Truck congestions near the ports in Kent were so bad that they even caused local traffic disturbances in some areas. Police were brought in to help organize the HGV queues.
With the chaos difficult to contain, a possible humanitarian disaster in Kent seemed a real possibility. A huge number of people carrying various freights ranging from foodstuffs to goods and products were stuck, and some of the stranded products required special storage conditions available only at their destinations.
Movement of unaccompanied freights (containers, etc.) was not stopped. However, how quickly the carriers regroup could transfer the freights stuck on the trucks to sea or air freight containers remained unclear, for the obstacles in their way were significant. Was it even possible given the trucks were tightly parked side by side in an open field inaccessible to other vehicles or reloading equipment? In any case, switching all land freights to sea or air freight transportation is impossible in a short time, as their capacities are limited.
France remained resolute and stated that only drivers with a negative COVID-19 test would be allowed in. This meant that the UK were obliged to arrange mass testing very quickly, bringing in the army and fire service for the task. As a result, several thousands trucks crossed the Eurotunnel on December 25 alone. This created an additional load both on the tunnel and its servicing companies, and was undoubtedly a huge burden on the environment at both ends, owing to the large number of trucks and the huge amounts of exhaust gases that were generated.
How prepared are countries for a sudden stop of deliveries?
From the European perspective, the disruption of deliveries from Britain is no real disaster as there are other suppliers available. From the British perspective, on the other hand, no deliveries coming in from the continent is a real issue. Where will the necessary goods come from in the absence of long-term stocks? And how will Britain obtain goods that are not made in sufficient quantities domestically? The situation at the channel was further hampered by the timing – it's during Christmas season that trade companies generate their largest turnover.
Ian Wright, chief executive of the British Food and Drink Federation (FDF)1, noted that France’s decision to block accompanied freight from the UK to the continent “can cause serious disruptions to fresh food supply.” While at the same time, the British Retail Consortium (BRC)2 stated that short-term haulage suspension would not stop retail trade, as retailers had created stocks. It seemed that nobody could predict how long the ban would last.
The influential newspaper, The Guardian, estimated that around 3000 trucks carrying vegetables, flowers and plants come to the UK from Europe every day. According to The Guardian, it is the small shops, local markets, restaurants and catering companies, together which supply up to 40% of Britain's fruit and veg, that will most likely experience shortages of those foodstuffs should there be further problems.
Analyzing the situation, theconversation.com3 journalists pointed out that Brexit risked just-in-time delivery systems, which were easily disrupted, and that leaving the EU, the source of a third of Britain's food, opened new risks. Brexit had not yet happened when the British first experienced what the disruptions of deliveries meant, even if only for a few days. “We were not surprised that concerns about food shortages emerged when France and over 40 countries imposed travel or truck movement bans on the UK,” theconversation.com noted.
This situation has highlighted a problem which has not been openly or frequently enough discussed: whether we are prepared for a possible halting of logistics, due to COVID-19 or anything else (natural or technogenic disaster, etc.). I believe that it’s time for Britain, and others, to check their stocks of essential goods and develop plans B, C, etc. in case of any further unexpected supply disruptions.
Risk assessment is more important than ever
COVID-19 is still tearing the world apart. Although active vaccination campaigns have already begun, it is clear that this year we will not return to normal life as we have known it. Currently, there are no available data on the losses suffered by the UK haulers and exporters due to closure of the border with France and other countries. At the height of the crisis, haulers cautiously said that they would “account losses as precautionary measures to stop the spread of COVID-19”. But this is no long-term solution.
Representatives of Nottingham-based, Baxter Freight, stated that the delays had cost the industry “millions of pounds an hour”, while director of Peterborough-based, Chiltern Distribution, Paul Jackson estimated that freight delays had cost the company “more than 5000 pounds a day”. During the crisis, the company had also looked into the possibility of redirecting freights via Belgium, but the earliest available supply corridor available was on January 4. The Scottish Seafood Association has also declared that it will demand compensation for the loss of profit from the Government, as during Christmas season their goods did not make it to their target markets in Europe. Jimmy Buchan, chief executive of the SSA, said that “people’s livelihoods and jobs are under threat”.
Clearly, the events in the UK showed that every hauler must focus on potential risk analysis and crisis solutions more than ever before.
Entrepreneur, Rolands Peterson, is an economic, transport and logistics expert. He pays particular attention to developments in the global economy.
1 Food and Drink Federation (FDF)
2 The British Retail Consortium (BRC)