It does not take a lot to cause disruption to freight. As the Ever Given incident showed last year, hundreds of vessels can be held up for days because of problems with a single ship (albeit a very large one). This would also be the case if other global pinch points were blocked, like the Bosporus or the Panama Canal.
The same is true at certain busy ports like Dover and Cairnryan and this week has seen significant disruption as a corollary of the P&O dispute, in which the ferry operator decided to sack 800 staff without notice and replace them with cheaper agency staff. As the firm is one of Britain’s largest sea freight companies as well as a public transport provider, this may have wide implications.
Naturally, the key focus has been on the occupation of ferries by staff, the anger against the company by unions and the government’s decision to take P&O to court on the basis that they did not follow redundancy law. But while the ships remain in port, freight is not being delivered.
As the BBC reports, thus means that hauliers in Northern Ireland are running is 50 per cent capacity due to a lack of ferry links between Larne and Cairnryan. John Martin from the Road Haulage Association told BBC Radio Ulster “two boat-loads of vehicles” were waiting at the Scottish port for their chance to cross the sea.
The problem goes in both directions. President of the Ulster Farmers’ Union Victor Chestnutt noted: “Northern Ireland provides food for ten million people, mostly in the UK, so that freight has to leave Northern Ireland.”
Food transportation is one of the biggest concerns in the P&O situation, with the National Sheep Association expressing fears last week that protracted disruption could be a particular issue for the sheep products industry.
Chief executive Phil Stocker said: “For a long time, the company [P&O] has been the mainstay of shipping live breeding sheep between Britain and Europe, and between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. “