The port faces two issues that together plague deliveries and cause delays, just as the key Christmas trading season – when retailers rely on daily stock deliveries to keep their shelves full – begins.
First, a huge increase in freight volumes is currently underway as retailers load their warehouses ahead of Christmas and the Brexit deadline.
Volumes are higher than usual as the flow of goods to the UK was seriously disrupted during the spring lockdown when, in the face of the ongoing health crisis, companies postponed or canceled billions of pounds of orders made with foreign suppliers. So there are more containers entering the port than usual.
At the same time, Felixstowe is struggling to store 11,000 containers of government-owned PPE. The backlog fills 3o% of the container space entering the port.
PPE was a “major factor” in the current congestion at the port, according to a source who suggested the government had no place to store it. “There’s a big build-up of that,” they said.
Felixstowe said he was “proud to support the government and play a small role in helping to ensure the NHS does not run out of life-saving PPE during this pandemic”.
But a port spokesman said some of the PPE containers “have been in port since August, creating additional pressure on top of a more general spike in volumes around the world. We are working with sub-contractors from the Ministry of Health to remove these containers to the out-of-port depots as quickly as possible. ”
Felixstowe handled more than 100,000 containers per week, the spokesperson added, but “remains under pressure due to the Covid pandemic, high levels of import traffic, the large number of empty containers and a large quantity of exceptionally long containers held at the port. ”
The 11,000 containers of PPE stored at the port were first reported by the East Anglia Daily Times, which said the containers were also stored at other locations.
The British International Freight Association (BIFA) said the huge stack of containers made operations difficult in Felixstowe and added to the problems elsewhere, at other ports such as the London Gateway in Thurrock in Essex and Southampton.
John Roberts, managing director of online electrical retailer AO.com, described the situation in Felixstowe as a mess.
“Felixstowe is a waste by the minute so a lot of product is unloaded elsewhere and rerouted by road, and also rerouted via Liverpool,” said Roberts.
“Over a third of the product we receive arrives at the wrong time. It might sound like a very simple thing, but when you plan the workforce and the bay in warehouses it adds phenomenal complexity and a lot of cost as well. ”
As retailers brace for their biggest selling weeks of the year, Roberts has warned of looming product shortages by the end of the month. “We don’t know exactly what they’re going to be,” he said. “We will have a much better image at the end of November. ”
Another large large-scale retailer said ports were overwhelmed because stores were ‘catching up’ due to the spring lockdown and the need to prepare for Brexit.
“There was a period of about six weeks during which the stock entering the UK declined significantly,” he explained. “We have now turned off the capacity in China and the capacity in UK ports is overloaded. Of course, the little thing that also adds to the complexity is called Brexit. “