Cargo ships forced to divert from UK ports as lorry driver crisis causes container backlog

12 October 2021, 20:40 | Updated: 13 October 2021, 09:40

Ships are being diverted away from Felixstowe because of a build-up of cargo as a result of the HGV driver shortage which has seen the army step in to drive fuel lorries
Ships are being diverted away from Felixstowe because of a build-up of cargo as a result of the HGV driver shortage which has seen the army step in to drive fuel lorries. Picture: Alamy

By Daisy Stephens

Shipping giant Maersk has said it is diverting vessels away from UK ports because of a build-up of cargo amid the UK's ongoing supply chain crisis.

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It has started rerouting its container ships away from Felixstowe, the UK's largest commercial port, to unload elsewhere in Europe before using smaller vessels to finally get deliveries to the UK, the Financial Times reported.

The congestion is partly the result of the HGV driver shortage slowing down the time it takes for containers to be emptied and picked up.

"We had to stop operations on a ship because there was nowhere to discharge the containers," said Lars Mikael Jensen, head of global ocean network at Maersk.

"Felixstowe is among the top two or three worst-hit terminals.

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"We are having to deviate some of the bigger ships away from Felixstowe and relay some of the smaller ships for the cargo.

"We did it for a little while over the summer and now we're starting to do it again."

The UK's port industry has also warned that some ports are managing access to storage space with "short-term restrictions" in a bid to ease congestion issues.

Felixstowe deals with 36 per cent of the UK's freight imports.

As a result the backlog there will add to concerns over how UK industry will cope with the key Christmas period.

Mr Jensen also warned that this may mean retailers are forced to prioritise what they ship to deal with the congestion.

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A spokesman for the port said: "In common with other major ports in the UK and beyond, the Port of Felixstowe is experiencing impacts of the global supply chain crisis.

"The vast majority of import containers are cleared for collection within minutes of arriving and there are over 1,000 unused haulier bookings most days.

"The situation is improving and there is more spare space for import containers this week than at any time since the beginning of July when supply chain impacts first started to bite.

"Empty container levels remain high as import containers are returned and we are asking shipping lines to remove them as quickly as possible."

The lorry driver shortage has contributed to disruption at UK ports.

Tim Morris, chief executive officer of the UK Major Ports Group, said that trade ports had become "the jam in the sandwich between surging, volatile shipping and UK supply chains badly impacted by factors such as HGV driver shortages".

"Ports have taken significant action to respond to the challenges and build resilience," said Mr Morris.

"They have extended gate opening to 24/7, increased capacity for trucks at peak hours, sought to maximise rail freight usage within the significant constraints of the network, created additional storage space and recruited more people.

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"But the pressures are being exacerbated by well-publicised issues impacting all UK supply chains, notably shortages of HGV drivers.

"Ports therefore have to manage access to storage space very dynamically in extreme situations. This can mean some very limited short-term restrictions.

He added that ports were "committed" to keeping goods moving through the supply chain.

On a visit to an HGV training centre near Oldham in Greater Manchester, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the shortage of drivers was "absolutely foreseeable".

"We need to get drivers back on the road just as quickly as possible because we've seen already the impact on fuel in recent weeks," he told broadcasters.

"Now we're seeing the impact in deliveries and this is going to go on for weeks and months into Christmas.

"And I think everybody will be saying we need to do something about it, we need to get that training in place.

"But for heaven's sake, this was predicted, it was absolutely foreseeable, and the Government hasn't responded.

"We knew when we left the EU that we would need to have a plan B in relation to drivers, we knew because of the pandemic there would be an impact, and here we are in the middle of a crisis and we've got, what? A Prime Minister who's missing in action."

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Sites elsewhere across the world have also suffered significant delays.

Retailers have highlighted particular issues in China and east Asia, where pandemic restrictions and poor weather conditions have affected shipping.