Britain's fresh food supply at risk until Dover backlog cleared
By James Davey
LONDON (Reuters) - UK supplies of fresh food, mostly fruit and vegetables, are in danger of running out until a truck backlog at Dover port is cleared and connections with France are back to normal, UK retailers said on Wednesday with.
A partial blockade by France to try to contain a new highly infectious variant of coronavirus has stranded thousands of trucks in Dover, Britain's main gateway to Europe, in the run-up to Christmas.
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Paris and London agreed late Tuesday that drivers with a negative COVID-19 test result could board ferries to Calais.
The military has started testing drivers, but a UK minister said it would take time to clear the backlog and is embarking on the UK's main food trade route before exiting European Union orbit.
"It is good news for consumers as the French borders have now reopened, but it is important that trucks get over the border as quickly as possible," said Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium (BRC). That's more than 170 major retailers, including major supermarkets.
"Until the backlog is cleared and supply chains return to normal, we expect problems with the availability of some fresh goods," he said.
Richard Burnett, CEO of the Road Haulage Association, said the port of Dover remained bogged down with around 8,000 trucks in the Kent area.
"This will likely take us to Boxing Day, Christmas Day. This won't be an easy fix," he told Sky News.
The BRC and the two largest supermarket groups in Great Britain, Tesco and Sainsbury's, have been warning since Monday that there would soon be gaps on the shelves if transport links with mainland Europe were not quickly restored.
The main endangered products are lettuce, lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli, citrus fruits, raspberries and strawberries.
Supermarket groups have said they have enough supplies for the Christmas break but are concerned about availability next week. They also fear border disruptions after January 1st, even if a free trade agreement is reached with the EU.
"In terms of availability, we should be fine by Wednesday / Thursday next week - after that the backlog in the ports will increase," said a source from a large supermarket group on condition of anonymity.
Some have started using air freight to bring fresh produce from southern Spain and North Africa to fill in the gaps until the backlog at the border eases.
Supermarkets are seeing record demand after Christmas due to COVID-19 restrictions in the hospitality industry and travel and there are fears of panic buying.
While large queues meandered in stores on one of the busiest grocery shopping days of the year, supermarket groups said customer behavior was largely rational, with shoppers adding an extra item or two to their normal Christmas shopping like pasta and toilet paper.
Even so, market leader Tesco has reintroduced some restrictions on purchases of toilet paper, hand wash, rice and eggs for customers.
Flour, dried pasta, baby wipes and antibacterial wipes were already limited.
(Reporting by James Davey; Editing by Barbara Lewis)
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