The world’s largest shipping firm has diverted giant cargo ships away from the UK, leading to fears of a shortage of toys, clothes and electronics at Christmas.
Maersk, the Danish shipping giant, announced that larger vessels would be ordered to dock elsewhere in Europe to avoid growing congestion at Felixstowe Port in Suffolk caused in part by a shortage of lorry drivers.
Business owners on Tuesday night complained that vital supplies and Christmas gifts were “buried somewhere” among thousands of containers piled high on the docks. One senior Maersk executive warned the disruption was likely to last well into the new year, while hauliers said they were “scared for the final rush” before the festive period.
Felixstowe, Britain’s biggest container port, handles around 36 per cent of imports and exports and is now struggling to cope with the volume of cargo arriving from Asia via the Suez Canal.
The average shipping container arriving at Felixstowe is currently spending more than nine days at the port before it is collected – more than double the average "dwell time" last year.
Hauliers estimated the number of collections last month was down by up to 20 per cent, leading to a backlog of around 7,500 full containers and 50,000 empty ones waiting at the terminal to be taken away. There are also labour issues at the port, with a shortage of workers to lift the containers on and off the ships.
Firms affected by the congestion are understood to include Nestle, Tesco and Ikea as well as hundreds of smaller British companies expecting orders from around the world. Management at Felixstowe were now considering turning vessels away unless the situation improved, sources said.
Snapback in demand floods ports
It comes as ports around the world experience congestion problems amid a global crunch in the supply chain. Record numbers of container ships have been stuck waiting in the waters outside Los Angeles to unload cargo, while there have been major issues in China and east Asia, where pandemic restrictions and poor weather conditions have affected shipping.
‘UK needs to find a solution to trucking shortage’
However Lars Mikael Jensen, head of global ocean network at Maersk, said Britain’s truck driver shortage meant that Felixstowe had become “one of the top three or four in the world with the biggest problem for big ships” because it was taking longer to move containers and return empty ones for pick up.
Maersk had taken the decision to divert one of its “two really big ships” that normally call at Felixstowe each week, he said. Each ship has a capacity of around 20,000 containers and would normally unload about 4,000 of them at the Suffolk port.
Towers of shipping containers filled with Christmas goods are stacked in the port of Felixstowe on Tuesday as they wait to be collected
Credit: Bav Media
“Somehow the UK needs to find a solution to the trucking shortage,” Mr Jensen told the Telegraph.
“There are not enough truck drivers to move the containers away and bring back the empty ones, so everything takes longer because there is no space.
“We decided that instead of waiting for up to 11 days, we would unload in other ports like Rotterdam and Antwerp and bring the goods on smaller ships to the UK. It causes a delay of around a week. Mostly we are talking about goods from Asia like garments and electronics.”
HGV driver trainees and successful candidates down by over 50%
Retailers may need to prioritise shipping certain goods in the run up to Christmas, Mr Jensen added.
“I wouldn’t be the right person to tell consumers whether they should buy early before Christmas. We are only a small part of the chain,” he said.
“But my best bet is that we will be well into 2022 before we can start to untangle this Gordian knot.
“I would add however that we haven’t yet come to a global standstill. There are still 10 to 15 big ships from Asia arriving in the UK every week.”
Industry sources said the congestion problems were not limited to Felixstowe with a major bottleneck at onward distribution centres in Birmingham and elsewhere across the UK.
Adam Searle, managing director of CP Transport, which operates 45 lorries out of Felixstowe, said the situation was a "nightmare."
He said: "My guys in the office are pulling their hair out every single day and are working extended hours just to try and deliver what our customers need,” he said.
“I’m scared for the final rush to Christmas.”
Key products set to be hit by troubled supply channels
Last year, Felixstowe clogged up because of a glut of PPE arriving at the port and a high staff absences caused by Covid. However one British navigator who has worked on container ships for a decade said the current disruption was the worst he had ever seen during his career.
The sailor, who only gave his name as Mark, said his company decided to skip Felixstowe altogether when returning with a shipment from Asia three weeks ago due to delays at the port.
He added: “We experienced a two-week delay coming out of Asia but we were fully loaded and sailed at full speed to Europe.
“We skipped Felixstowe though because of the congestion.
‘That is never an easy decision – because you are going to upset customers – but when the bottlenecks are that bad you have to move on. It’s a total s—show.”
Garden furniture due in June ‘buried’ in Felixstowe
Nick Glynne, chief executive of online retailer Buy It Direct, which buys white goods, electronics and furniture from China to sell to UK consumers, said the problems were having a “massive impact” on customer service, staffing, revenue and profit.
“We’ve got a load of garden furniture in containers that was due in June buried somewhere around Felixstowe,” he said.
“We’ve got a whole load of electric scooters and American-style big fridge freezers due to arrive for Christmas and we don’t think it’s going to be here in time.
“They are so full they just can’t find our containers because they are buried under five others.
“We’re getting charged demurrage and detention fees because they are holding on to our loads for longer.
"Then there’s the problem with some ports saying they won’t accept empty containers back because they just don’t have the space to take them. Then we are getting charged for not returning empty containers. It feels like a money-making exercise and a tax on importers.”
Supermarkets and retailers held a conference call on Tuesday to discuss the problems at Felixstowe. Food and drink deliveries are understood to have escaped the worst of the disruption so far, although Tesco is already sending more goods by rail to minimise the impact of driver shortages.
Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said: "Congestion at the Port of Felixstowe is yet another unwanted side effect of the HGV driver shortage. As cargo cannot be removed fast enough, there is a backlog of containers at the ports which are preventing new ships from docking and unloading.
"Retailers are working closely with suppliers to mitigate issues, including finding alternative routes to bring goods into the country, but further disruption may be unavoidable.”
A spokesman for the Port of Felixstowe 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."