UK ports see volume increase – but experts warn of ‘false’ pandemic contrast

Felixstowe, England - August 31, 2013: A large Maersk Line container ship, the Maersk Klaipeda, stacked with containers at Felixstowe, Suffolk, in eastern England. Maersk Line is part of a large Danish company and is one of the largest container shipping companies in the world. The Port of Felixstowe is situated on the River Orwell estuary which leads to the North Sea.

Ports in the UK have experienced an increase in unitised traffic – however experts have warned of “false friends” for volumes returning to pre-pandemic levels.

In the port freight quarterly statistics released by the UK Government, the total volume of unitised traffic – containers and HGV trailers – has increased by 38% to 4.5 million units for the period April to June 2021.

Inward units experiencing the greatest increase with a 42% rise, while outward units increased by 33%.

“Please note, we are now comparing to the quarter most affected by the UK lockdown (April to June 2020), so increases can be interpreted as a return to more normal levels,” the UK Government wrote.

But Phoebe Warneford-Thomson, Policy Manager and Economic Analyst at British Ports Association (BPA), argued that the comparison to lockdown in 2020 means that the British industry is not back to normality just yet.

“There are positives to be drawn from today’s publication of the Department for Transport’s Q2 port freight statistics with a proportionally strong rise in tonnages from Q1 to Q2 compared to 2019 data,” Warneford-Thomson said.

“However, these stark rises compared to Q2 2020 serve as false friends for volumes returning to pre-pandemic levels.

“With regards to the picture of UK and global trading volumes, the enduring theme of the last 18 months has been volatility and today’s release is no exception. This volatility has placed immense pressure on port operators due to ever-changing volume levels, putting further pressure on efficiencies, which has been exacerbated by haulier shortages.

“The UK’s diverse range of ports have demonstrated their resilience during the pandemic and we expect this challenging overall picture for ports to continue at least into Q2 next year.”

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