dover port lorries

Reduced ferry capacity resulting from P&O’s sacking of 800 workers could begin to seriously impact the flow of food into the UK within days, industry groups have warned.

P&O sailings are cancelled today after the ferry operator yesterday fired 800 crew without notice, saying it plans to replace them with cheaper agency staff.

RMT and other unions are staging protests at the affected ports of Dover, Liverpool, Hull and Larne, and demanding P&O reverse its decision and reinstate the workers. 

Transport minister Robert Courts said yesterday that P&O had informed government that services would be suspended for a week to 10 days.    

Cold Chain Federation CEO Shane Brennan said P&O ferries made up about a third of the freight capacity between Dover and Calais, including the Channel Tunnel, and the disruption was already causing up to five-hour delays for hauliers.

He said supply chain planning allowed for such delays in the short term but warned of an “accumulative impact” starting next week. 

“We’re OK for now but if this carries on, which it looks like it will, it could start to get problematic next week and the week after,” he said.

“The Dover to Calais route is often disrupted for two or three days because of weather, so that is built in to supply chain planning. It’s when it becomes six to 10 days that you start to see an accumulative impact.

“If we’re still talking about this in a week’s time, then we’ll start to see some of the effects playing out in terms of reduced stuff being sent to the UK and slower delivery times.”

P&O, owned by Dubai-based DP World, has transported replacement crews from agencies to affected ports, after sacking the 800 workers by Zoom call.

Brennan said it did not bode well for the chances of a quick end to the disruption. “The idea they can parachute in an entirely new crew to operate those routes seems very optimistic from their point of view,” he said. “We have to expect that a combination of continuing protests and the fact they’ve got a new crew will mean they are unlikely to be operating as normal for a while.”

Industry sources say they have been briefed by government that Defra is closely monitoring the situation and working with the DfT over concerns extended disruption will have ramifications for food security. 

A spokeswoman for Logistics UK said the suspension of P&O services would “obviously have an unavoidable impact on the supply chain” in the short term.

She added: “We don’t know yet how big [the impact] is because there is capacity elsewhere. Other ports have capacity so we’re advising our members to use them or Eurotunnel.”

Andrew Opie, BRC director of food & sustainability, said: “Retailers are working with other ferry companies to ensure disruption to P&O ferry services does not interfere with the movement of fresh food between GB, NI and EU.

“Nonetheless, a prolonged interruption to P&O services, who are an important part of UK supply chains, could eventually impact the flow of goods. We urge the ferry company and union to find a speedy resolution to the current issues.”

The Food and Drink Federation’s head of international trade Dominic Goudie said: “While we do not anticipate any immediate disruption to UK food supplies, the suspension of services for seven days is an unwelcome headache for manufacturers, particularly those moving perishable and fresh goods across the short straits and into Northern Ireland.”

The National Sheep Association said it had “serious concern over the impact on the movement of breeding sheep and goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland following the announcement from P&O Ferries that it is making serious operational changes”.

Courts told parliament yesterday: “We of course have long-planned contingencies for this sort of situation, particularly around the Channel, and I do not expect the supply of critical goods and services to be impacted as a result of this decision by P&O, although queues on the way to Dover are more likely to occur at times.”

A statement on P&O’s website said: “P&O Ferries have today announced a programme of work to become a more competitive and efficient operator, providing a better service to our customers across the tourism and freight industries.

“While we enact these changes, there will be significant disruption across P&O Ferries services over the next few days, however we are working to minimise the impact on your journey.”