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Brexit and Covid bring ‘critical’ UK container logjam

Brexit and Covid bring ‘critical’ UK container logjam
Ports in the UK are struggling to clear a critical buildup of containers due to Covid and Brexit.

While ports around the world have suffered disruption due to the Covid pandemic, data from Container xChange showed that the backlog of containers in UK ports has worsened since the country left the European Union on January 1. Delays to political discussions on the terms of the UK's departure from the EU left UK businesses with little clarity in the run up to Brexit on the extra processes paperwork it would add to supply chains accustomed to friction-free trade between the UK and the bloc. 

Container xChange’s Container Availability Index (CAx) indicates a balanced market at 0.5, with a lower number showing a shortage of containers and higher number an excess of containers.

In 2020 the UK's port of Felixstowe had an average CAx of 0.79 for a 40-foot container and 0.78 for a 20-foot container. For 2021 so far, both numbers have risen, to 0.95 and 0.90, respectively.

At the port of Southampton the CAx reading was 0.71 for a 40-foot box in 2020 and 0.72 for a 20-foot box. Both index readings again rose for 2021, to 0.86 and 0.85, respectively.

“The UK’s leading gateway terminals for container traffic suffered congestion for much of 2020 prompting carriers to cut some calls and ship cargo in from European hubs via the Channel Tunnel, ferry services and feeder services instead,” said Dr. Johannes Schlingmeier, CEO of Container xChange.  

“Based on the build-up of containers at ports in 2021, it seems the situation has further deteriorated. We are now seeing critical levels of boxes building up at Southampton and Felixstowe. Post-Brexit cross-Channel shipments are more complicated under dual-Customs regimes and this could be a factor in logistics bottlenecks.”

The company is also seeing signed of distress in Liverpool, where new services were launched to relieve Brexit disruption. From 2020 to 2021, the CAx at Liverpool has risen from 0.59 to 0.75 for a 40-foot container and from 0.68 to 0.82 for a 20-foot container.

Container backlogs are not just limited to the UK and its added Brexit complications. Ports globally have suffered from delays as consumer habits changed sharply due to the COVID pandemic and the usual flow of ships and containers was disrupted.

Container availability at European gateway ports is better than in the UK, according to Container xChange’s figures. Rotterdam went from 0.40 for a 40-foot box in 2020 to 0.51 in 2021, and from 0.21 to 0.41 for a 20-foot box.

At Hamburg, the average CAx reading for a 40-foot container in 2020 was 0.27 suggesting critical shortages; this year the average reading was a more balanced 0.49.