Supermarkets and wholesalers are warning shoppers of shortages of lettuce, broccoli and citrus fruit around Christmas after France banned hauliers carrying freight across the Channel in an effort to contain the spread of the new coronavirus strain.
The environment secretary, George Eustice, held an emergency call with supermarket executives on Monday afternoon to discuss the situation as retailers expressed concerns that the lorry ban could combine with Brexit disruption to cause serious difficulties for shops.
Retailers said the ingredients for a traditional Christmas lunch, such as Turkey, carrots, peas, potatoes, parsnips and brussels sprouts were mostly produced in the UK and available to buy, but some shelves could soon be empty of some fresh produce imported from Europe.
“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,” said a Sainsbury’s spokesperson.
“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.”
Sainsbury’s added that it was “sourcing everything we can from the UK and looking into alternative transport for product sourced from Europe”.
Tesco encouraged customers to “shop as normal” as it had plenty of food up to 25 December.
A spokesperson said: “We don’t expect any problems with availability for Christmas, but if the current disruption continues then there may be reduced supply on a limited number of fresh items, such as lettuce, cauliflower and citrus fruit, later this week.”
Other big supermarkets and suppliers said they were also well-stocked with Christmas favourites but that supplies close to and after 25 December could be more difficult. One said the situation was “very unclear and slightly outside of our hands”.
Other crops that could be affected by the French move include tomatoes, courgettes, sweet peppers, flowers and tropical fruits, some of which are flown into mainland Europe and then driven via France to the UK.
At least one supermarket chain and some wholesalers are considering flying in salads and other items if the problems persist but high costs and low availability of air freight capacity are likely to mean only a small amount of goods could be moved in this way. Other options being explored include increasing direct shipments from Holland and Spain, although capacity on ferries from those countries is limited.
Food industry trade bodies called on the government to resolve the situation with France as swiftly as possible.
About 3,000 lorry loads of vegetables, flowers and plants enter the UK every day from Europe. Small shops, local markets, restaurants and catering firms that source from wholesalers, who supply 40% of the fruit and vegetables we eat, are likely to be affected within days.
Hospitals and care homes could be among those first hit, according to the Fresh Produce Consortium trade body, as many are reliant on wholesale suppliers getting daily deliveries from the continent.
Nigel Jenney, chief executive of the Fresh Produce Consortium, said: “At some wholesale markets a huge number of vehicles didn’t arrive today. It is critical the government resolves this situation urgently so we can get back on track.”
He was “astounded the government failed to understand the risk before making the announcement [on Sunday]” and that measures – such as testing facilities for returning drivers – should have been taken to offset neighbouring countries’ concerns about a new strain of the coronavirus in the UK.
Ian Wright, the chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation trade body, said: “Yesterday’s 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. Continental truckers will not want to travel here if they have a real fear of getting marooned. The government must very urgently persuade the French government to exempt accompanied freight from its ban.”
The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said he was talking to his French counterpart, Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, in an effort to restart freight. “The absolute key is to get this resolved as soon as possible,” he told Sky News.
Asked about possible shortages in supermarkets, Shapps said: “The supply chain is pretty robust, in as much as you get variations in supply all the time. For the most part, people won’t notice it.”
Seeking to downplay the problem, Shapps said container freight was not hit by the French ban on travellers. However, importers said the vast majority of food shipped from Europe comes in via lorries via Dover and so would be affected.
Hauliers warned of shortages of produce from across the Channel after the 48-hour ban because long queues of lorries in Kent trying to get out of the UK could deter lorry drivers from Europe from entering in the first place.
Boris Johnson added at a press conference on Monday that discussions were taking place to “unblock the flow of trade as fast as possible”.
He said: “It was an excellent conversation with the French President [Emmanuel Macron], he stressed he was keen to sort it out in the next few hours if we can. Our teams will be working on it flat out … we will do it as fast as we can.”
The leader of Kent county council, Roger Gough, said that in the run-up to Brexit “we are anticipating some 17,000 vehicles coming into Kent to make the crossing over the next couple of days”.
Operation Stack has been activated, which involves queueing lorries on the M20 when there is disruption in Channel crossings.
Operation Brock was also set to be implemented on Monday night, under which parts of the eastbound M20 – the main road to Dover and the Eurotunnel at Folkestone – will be closed to normal traffic and made available exclusively for lorries. Other vehicles will use the London-bound side of the M20 in a contraflow system.