Road freight conditions highly unpredictable across English Channel

Despite being known as a growth driver in Europe, German consumer demand is often mediocre with the economy disproportionately dependent on exports of automotive products in particular.

Conditions facing road freight moving across the English Channel seem to be resembling those seen in March and April, with extensive congestion at Dover, Calais and Dunkerque. There are suggestions that airfreight will be disrupted, however, the situation is fast-moving and uncertain.

The present crisis has been amplified by the announcement of the discovery of a new strain of SARS CoV2 virus over the weekend. UK Government sources seemed to imply that the new mutation could spread more rapidly, although evidence of this is elusive. The news of this triggered a reaction from several governments with the French government issuing a 48-hour ban on travel between the UK and France on Sunday. This led to extensive congestion and confusion around the Channel ports whilst some other UK ports stopped accepting trucks with drivers. The confusion continued when the French government rescinded the travel ban on truck drivers on Monday. The French are now considering some form of testing regime for drivers entering France, although the details of this are unclear.

Road haulage organisations in France are asserting that drivers will be reluctant to cross into the UK for fear of being delayed. The cross-channel routes are distinct in that they are heavily reliant on non-UK trucks and drivers; more than 90% of the drivers are not British, with most originating from Central European states.

The 27 nations of the EU are scheduled to meet to discuss how they will manage the border issue, however, information is emerging that the virus mutation that caused such concern is already present in a number of continental European countries, notably Denmark and the Netherlands, making any new border restrictions pointless.

There are also new restrictions in place on air passenger transport between the UK and a number of other nations which could further hinder airfreight, however, passenger numbers were already very low, approximately 10% of normal, and so the impact may be limited.

This new twist in the crisis comes at the same time as the UK is preparing for the imposition of border controls between it and the nations of the European Union. This has resulted in friction as all the countries concerned prepare customs systems, something that is not helped by impositions of ‘social distancing’. The combined effects of the two seems to have been the creation of long queues of trucks at both sides of the Channel. This has combined with the congestion in the container shipping sector, focussed on the port of Felixstowe, which is heavily influenced by the dysfunction of the container shipping sector globally.

Although the situation is very uncertain and is changing almost from hour-to-hour, congestion on routes out of the UK is likely to ease over the next few days. Apart from the problems in Felixstowe container port, Britain has ample port capacity. Its dependence on imports of food is not quite as immediate as is often perceived, for example with dairy products generally sourced within the British Isles. The most vulnerable sectors are often industrial and those have been struggling with transport interruptions since March.

Source: Transport Intelligence, December 21 2020

Author: Thomas Cullen