U.K. fresh food supplies could be hit by French freight ban

U.K. fresh food supplies could be "seriously disrupted" by French freight suspension

France's decision to temporarily block all freight including trucks from the U.K. in response to the emergence of a new and more infectious strain of Covid-19 could have a severe effect on Britain's fresh food supply.

The French government said on Sunday that all passenger and human-handled freight transport from the UK to France would be suspended for 48 hours from 11pm GMT.

As the World Health Organization called on European members to step up measures, Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands on Sunday announced the suspension of air links – and in some cases rail and ferry routes – from Britain.

Although there is no ban on trucks from France to the U.K., many of the 10,000 trucks that cross the English Channel every day through the tunnel and via the port of Dover are empty. 

These trucks make regular pick-ups for perishable food from big distribution centers in north France and Belgium, including winter vegetables such as cauliflower, cabbage and brussels sprouts.

Britain's second-biggest supermarket on Monday morning warned gaps will start to appear on shelves within days.

Sainsbury's said there would be shortages on products including lettuce, salad leaves and cauliflowers if transport ties with the continent are not restored quickly.

“If nothing changes, we will start to see gaps over the coming days on lettuce, some salad leaves, cauliflowers, broccoli and citrus fruit – all of which are imported from the continent at this time of year,” a spokesperson said.

“We hope the UK and French governments can come to a mutually agreeable solution that prioritises the immediate passage of produce and any other food at the ports.”

Rod McKenzie, policy director at the Road Haulage Association, was quoted as saying: “It’s only 48 hours, but the French ban will have a devastating effect on the supply chain.

“We have seen in recent days the queues on both sides of the channel because of Brexit stockpiling and the Christmas rush and now border closures will mean everything including perishable food supplies will be impacted.

“We depend on the short straits for our daily supplies. What we are talking about is everything: factory parts, fresh and frozen vegetables, and all the Christmas deliveries.”

Meanwhile, food and Drink Federation (FDF) chief executive Ian Wright warned that the travel restrictions have the potential for "serious disruption" to fresh food supplies over the Christmas holidays. 

"The suspension of accompanied freight traffic from the UK to France has the potential to cause serious disruption to UK Christmas fresh food supplies — and exports of UK food and drink," he said.

He added that truckers from continental Europe will not want to travel to the U.K. if they have a "real fear of getting marooned". 

Richard Burnett, head of the Road Haulage Association, said that the ban could deter EU haulers from coming to the UK over fears they will end up being stranded.

"The retailers have done a good job of stocking up on ambient products [for Christmas] - there will be plenty of stock," he added. "But the fresh food supply, where it's short shelf life and there will be product on its way now, that's where the challenge comes from.

"The retailers will absolutely be assessing their inbound flows this morning and understanding whether or not those flows are on their way into the retail distribution centres around the country and I'm sure there will be further reassurance given today that those things are in control."

British grocery stores were already seen stockpiling food amid the possibility of a no-deal scenario as Brexit trade deal negotiations between the EU and U.K. go down to the wire.

If a deal is not reached by the end of the transition period on Dec. 31, the U.K. will be trading with the EU on World Trade Organization (WTO) terms, which will mean tariffs and other barriers on a large range of goods including fresh food.