Hauliers want priority for perishable goods at Dover

By Katie Prescott
Business correspondent

Lorries queuing in Kent in April 2022 because of delays at DoverImage source, PA Media

UK hauliers carrying perishable goods say products are losing quality and value as they are forced to sit in long queues to cross into Europe at Dover.

Bad weather, Easter holidays and P&O Ferries routes being suspended have all led to congestion around the port.

The queues eased on Sunday, but the British Meat Processors Association said some of its members had waited for 24 hours or more to cross.

The government said traffic management measures were under regular review.

However, a Department for Transport spokesperson gave no indication that there would be a change made for those transporting perishable items.

As well as the other factors causing congestion, which have led to the traffic management system Operation Brock being put in place, there have also been problems with a key IT system for custom checks at the UK's busiest port after Brexit.

Lockerbie-based Eardley International takes fresh meat from the UK into continental Europe, operating 25 trucks at any one time.

"Our products have a very short shelf life," company director Graham Eardley told the BBC.

"If we load lamb in the UK on a Monday, we'd expect to deliver that product to Germany on a Tuesday. Now we are seeing delays of 20 to 25 hours to cross the Channel, and the quality and the sale value of that product falls by every hour it is delayed."

Furthermore, haulier regulations mean drivers need to take an 11-hour break when they get to Calais, as they cannot rest while they are in the traffic jam in case they need to move their vehicle. This just adds to the problem.

P&O routes are still being suspended due to a shortage of ferry services following its dismissal of almost 800 staff last month without notice. The company says it plans to resume its operations on the Dover-Calais route next week if it gets regulatory approval.

Nick Allen, chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association, said the delays meant that the UK was losing business, as customers were turning to other countries to source goods at a time when their members' products were in hot demand.

"We are told to expect disruption well into next week. With Easter weekend approaching and a very busy time for exporting fresh meat, this is really bad timing."

Image caption,
Graham Eardley says his company's produce loses value for every hour it is delayed

For Mr Eardley, the delays mean losing up to £800 per truck.

He says the abattoirs who use his services are also getting claims for late delivery and loss in value.

"We are paying for the driver to be sitting in the truck not being productive and seeing the loss of the revenue that the vehicle could be making."

Many in the industry argue that hauliers carrying fresh produce should be prioritised for boarding, as they have been before.

The Kent Resilience Forum, which manages emergency planning for the county, said they were waiting for the government to advise them of who and what would be allowed to jump the queue.

This is causing huge frustration to Mr Eardley, who says that as hauliers register customs forms listing the contents of their lorries, it should be a straightforward process to put in place.

Toby Howe, the tactical lead for the forum, explained: "It is not as simple as saying we will just fast-track meat or anything perishable.

"In 2015 we were given very general guidance and drivers got clever by putting a small amount in the lorry. For EU exit planning, Defra came up with specifics which we were then able to prioritise."

Others believe you cannot retrofit a priority system.

UK reputation threatened

In response, the Department for Transport (DfT) said the traffic management measures were regularly reviewed but did not say whether any changes would be made with regard to the transportation of perishable items.

It said: "P&O's unacceptable actions have resulted in its vessels being detained, causing backlogs and traffic jams which would be substantially alleviated if its fleet was operating normally. We are receiving real-time updates as the Kent Resilience Forum, police and regional leaders work around-the-clock to ease disruption and support those affected."

Trade body Logistics UK said it supported prioritising perishable goods, but said the practicalities of facilitating such a policy were currently unclear.

Mags Simpson, Logistics UK's head of policy engagement, said: "The delays are frustrating for industry and Logistics UK is working with DfT and the ports to identify effective solutions that can be introduced as soon as possible."

Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation - the trade association that represents businesses which store and move frozen and chilled food - said the poor conditions caused by Operation Brock were fanning the flames of driver shortages, in an already overstretched industry.

"The UK is getting a growing reputation for being a hassle to serve, and that creates problems for my members who can't find the hauliers to take their business because they don't want to take the risk of sitting in traffic on the M20."

Part of the frustration is that hauliers feel like tourist traffic in Dover is being prioritised over freight traffic. Mr Eardley says this further undermines morale.

"Are we saying that it's not fair to have Jimmy and Jonny delayed in their car going on holiday, but that it's acceptable to ask drivers to wait 20 hours or more in their cab? Until there is more understanding of drivers and their experience, we are on the road to ruin."

From July this year, the UK will start imposing Brexit controls on meat and dairy goods coming in from the EU. Industry leaders are concerned that this will be yet another crunch time for Dover.