Supermarkets try to calm food shortage fears amid border chaos

By Daniel Thomas
Business reporter, BBC News

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Image source, Getty Images

Retailers have played down fears of food shortages after France shut its borders to UK hauliers for 48 hours due to the UK's new coronavirus variant.

But they warned of "serious disruption" without a resolution, with Tesco and Sainsbury's saying some fresh produce such as lettuce could run short.

The prime minister's spokesman said the UK had a "diverse" food supply chain.

The Channel is a vital trade route, with about 10,000 lorries a day travelling between Dover and Calais in peak periods such as Christmas, largely bringing in the freshest produce.

The risk is European hauliers will avoid the UK for fear of getting stranded in the country.

'Poses difficulties'

The head of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), Ian Wright, said the border closure had the "potential to cause serious disruption to UK Christmas fresh food supplies - and exports of UK food and drink".

Andrew Opie, director of food & sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said retailers had stocked up well ahead of Christmas.

But he added: "The closure of France to UK traffic, including accompanied freight poses difficulties for UK capacity to import and export key goods during the busy Christmas period.

"While goods can enter from France, few haulage firms will be willing to send trucks and drivers across to the UK without a guarantee they can return to the EU in a timely manner."

Image source, PA Media
Image caption,
There have been large queues of traffic outside the Port of Dover

Tesco said it had plenty of food for Christmas and it was encouraging customers to "shop as normal".

"We've been building our stockholding of key products ahead of the Christmas peak and are working closely with our hauliers and suppliers to continue the supply of goods into our stores," it said.

But it warned that "there may be reduced supply on a few fresh items, such as lettuce, cauliflower and citrus fruit later this week, but we don't expect any problems with availability on these lines today or tomorrow".

A Sainsbury's spokesman said all of its Christmas lunch products were "already in the country" and it was looking at alternative ways of sourcing products from Europe.

But he added: "If nothing changes, we will start to see gaps over the coming days on lettuce, some salad leaves, cauliflowers, broccoli and citrus fruit - all of which are imported from the Continent at this time of year."

Currently freight lorries cannot enter France, but trucks coming in the opposite direction are still allowed.

Unaccompanied freight, such as containers or lorry trailers on their own, can still be transported from the UK to France.

On Sunday, the Port of Dover said it was closed to traffic leaving the UK "until further notice" due to the border restrictions.

'Drivers just want to get home'

Image source, Phil Houlton
Image caption,
Phil Houlton is the operations director of a haulage firm in Stoke-on-Trent

"People focus on the goods, but in this country, we're doing nothing for those drivers," says Phil Houlton.

The operations director at DWP & Sons, a haulage firm based in Stoke-on-Trent, says that it currently has three drivers who have been stuck in queues on the M20 for up to 14 hours.

"Guess what? If they want to go to the toilet, they've got to dig a hole at the side of the road. It's 2020, that's so undignified. If it wasn't for the fact they have self-sufficient cabs - microwaves, coffee machines - they'd have nothing."

Other drivers have been diverted so freight can be transported unaccompanied, while others are stuck on the other side of the Channel.

And with uncertainty surrounding a Brexit trade deal, "the French have seen this as a good opportunity to make this even worse", Phil believes.

"These are people we've worked hand-in-glove with for years, and now they're trying to make us pay for [an exit from the European Union]."

While the firm has been preparing for a potential "no-deal" Brexit for months, Phil's primary concern is now ensuring the wellbeing of the drivers who are stuck.

"All of them want to get home and spend time with their families. It's only a couple of times a year where truck drivers want to be home and Christmas is one of them," he says.

UK ministers discussed the French ban at a Cobra emergency committee after urging the public and hauliers not to travel to ports in Kent such as Dover.

The prime minister's official spokesman said people should "shop normally" while the travel ban was in place and "continue to be considerate in the way they shop".

He added that the "majority of food doesn't come into the UK from the short strait" between Dover and Calais and the UK has "diverse and resilient supply chains".

On Thursday morning, France's Mr Djebbari tweeted: "In the next few hours, at European level, we're going to establish a solid health protocol to ensure that movement from the UK can resume.

"Our priority: to protect our nationals and our fellow citizens."

Kent Police have mobilised Operation Stack - a system to park lorries on the M20 motorway in Kent- to handle the build-up of traffic caused by the disruption.

The Department for Transport has also said that Manston Airport in Kent is being readied to take up to 4,000 lorries to ease congestion in the county.

Image source, Getty Images

Richard Burnett, head of the Road Haulage Association, told the BBC's Today programme that consumers should not "worry about panic buying at this point in time".

He also said retailers would be doing all they could to ensure their fresh food supplies.

Another freight industry lobby group, Logistics UK, said it was concerned about the welfare of drivers going from the UK to France, and said they should have access to regular testing.

It appealed for calm from shoppers, and said it was "maintaining close contact with UK government to ensure that supplies of fresh produce are available throughout Christmas and the new year".

No vaccine impact

The government does not think the restrictions will affect the delivery of Covid-19 vaccines to the UK, the transport secretary has told the BBC.

Image caption,
Despite assurances that plenty of food will be available, some shoppers found empty shelves late on Monday

Grant Shapps also refused to delay the end of the Brexit transition process, following calls from Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to extend it as the UK dealt with the new coronavirus variant.

Mr Shapps said the date had been known about for a "long time" and changing it would "add fuel to the fire".

"The important thing is that businesses continue to prepare, that individuals are prepared," he said.

However, Labour's Rachel Reeves, shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, called the latest developments "deeply worrying".

"The country needs to hear credible plans and reassurance that essential supplies will be safeguarded, including our NHS, supermarkets and manufacturers with crucial supply chains," she said.

The current transition period is due to expire at the end of the year and the EU and UK are still negotiating a trade deal.

Without it both sides will have to collect expensive tariffs that the Office for Budget Responsibility says could harm the UK's economy.