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Affects of COVID-19 on Shipping and UK supplies

We have seen increasing problems over recent weeks with congestion at our major container ports in the UK.  In short they are struggling to cope with the capacity of containers arriving.  This is leading to backlogs, log jams and vessels being diverted.  In some cases shipping lines are simply diverting to other countries avoiding the UK and leading to significant delays in containers being delivered to customers.  The problem is being felt most acutely at the UKs busiest port Felixstowe.

Why is this happening?  There are a number of reasons being given and as is common in these situations there is no one single factor but the coming together of a number of factors all at the same time.  COVID-19 has led to restrictions on the way staff can operate safely with measures such as increased social distancing etc which has resulted in a reduced operating capacity.  We also understand there have been issues of staff shortages, caused in part by staff off with illness, quarantine etc.  One of the effects of this is that the number of trucks allowed into the ports per day to collect containers has been severely reduced.   To compound matters there is also a shortage of available trucks to collect containers which in part may be due to a loss of European drivers as the effects of Brexit start to kick in.

If this wasn’t enough there is also a global problem of containers being in the wrong place.  Many containers are being held in Europe and USA being unable to unload due to shortages of warehousing – many of which are full due to the sluggish retail market and slow stock turnover.  The net result is that there are now acute shortages of empty containers in places like China making it difficult to book a container in the first place.  Finally shipping lines cut back on sailings earlier in the year to math a fall in demand and have not increased them again as demand picks up meaning spaces on vessels are also in short supply

As a customer what can you do about it?  Firstly don’t despair here are a number of measures we are taking to help mitigate these issues for our customers.  We have built very good relationships in China over the years and are therefore still able to get booking slots and containers for our customers even when there are apparently none available!  Choosing the right shipping line, and the right port of entry can also significantly improve the chances of your container arriving on time.  For some customers we look to other routes such as rail freight or air shipping, both of which are more expensive, especially the latter but if time is of the essence it may be money well spent.     Having good infrastructure in the UK is also vital to ensure efficient collection and delivery of containers even when ships are delayed or rerouted often at very short notice.    As a result we have actually managed to deliver 97% of our containers promptly without the undue delay experienced by many.

Is this likely to continue?  The ports are making huge efforts to try and resolve these issues but they are working against a backdrop of rising COVID-19 levels and that small matter of Brexit which is now just around the corner.  In the event of a no deal we fear the effects on all imports, not just those from Europe may be further delays.   Finally if you are looking to ship goods from China or indeed anywhere around the world – plan early – and give yourself that little extra time.  It helps us to help you.