Shops warn of Christmas stock shortages as PPE shipments clog key UK port

Retailers are warning a logjam at the country’s biggest container port could result in product shortages this Christmas, as it emerged 11,000 containers of government-procured PPE is clogging up Felixstowe.

Congestion at Felixstowe is a problem for the whole country as the Suffolk port handles approximately 40% of all the containers coming into and out of the UK.

The port is facing two problems that are together hitting deliveries and causing delays, just as the key Christmas trading period – when retailers rely on daily deliveries of stock to keep their shelves full – is getting underway.

Firstly, a huge surge in freight volumes is currently underway as retailers load up their warehouses ahead of Christmas and the Brexit deadline.

The volumes are greater than usual because the flow of goods into the UK was seriously disrupted during the spring lockdown when, faced with the unfolding health crisis, businesses postponed or cancelled billions of pounds of orders placed with overseas suppliers. There are therefore more containers coming into the port than normal.

At the same time Felixstowe is struggling to provide storage for 11,000 containers of PPE belonging to the government. The backlog is filling 3o% of the inbound container space at the port.

The PPE was a “significant factor” in the current congestion at port, according to one source who suggested the government did not have anywhere to store it. “There is a big build up of it,” they said.

Felixstowe said it was “proud to support the government and to play a small part in helping ensure the NHS does not run out of vital PPE during this pandemic”.

But a spokesman for the port said some of the PPE containers “have been at the port since August, which does create additional pressure on top of a more general spike in volumes being experienced worldwide. We are working with the contractors to the Department of Health to remove these containers to off-port depots as quickly as possible.”

Felixstowe was handling more than 100,000 containers a week, the spokesman added, but “remains under pressure due to the Covid pandemic, high levels of import traffic, the large number of empty containers, and a large amount of unusually long-stay containers held at the port.”

The 11,000 containers of PPE being stored at the port was first reported by the East Anglia Daily Times, which said containers were also being stored at other sites.

The British International Freight Association (BIFA) said the huge stack of containers were making operations difficult at Felixstowe, and adding to problems elsewhere, at other ports such as London Gateway at Thurrock in Essex and at Southampton.

John Roberts, the chief executive of online electrical goods retailer AO.com, described the situation at Felixstowe as a mess.

“Felixstowe is a mess at the minute, so there is a lot of product being unloaded elsewhere and redirected by road, and also being redirected through Liverpool,” Roberts said.

“Over a third of the product we receive is arriving at the wrong time. That might sound like a very simple thing but when you’re planning labour and bays on warehouses, it adds a phenomenal amount of complexity and quite a bit of cost as well.”

With retailers gearing up for their biggest sales weeks of the year, Roberts warned of looming product shortages by the end of this month. “We don’t know exactly what they’re going to be,” he said. “We’ll have a much better picture at the end of November. ”

Another major high-street retailer said the ports were being overwhelmed because stores were “playing catch up” as a result of the spring lockdown as well as the need to prepare for Brexit.

“There was there was a period of about six weeks where incoming stock to the UK dropped off significantly,” he explained. “Now we have turned the tap back on the capacity in China and the capacity in the UK ports is overloaded. Of course the little thing that’s also adding to the complexity is called Brexit.”

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