Brexit and pandemic hit UK port throughput volumes

Maritime & Ports

Source: Lloyd's Loading List, 2021-06-14

The twin impacts of Brexit and the pandemic have had a negative effect on UK port throughput in the first quarter of 2021.

Statistics released by the Department for Transport show that total freight tonnage fell 9% year on year between January and March to 103.9m t.

Total imports were down 8% to 67.2m t and exports down 11% to 36.6m t.

Despite signs that more freight is shifting modes towards shortsea containerisation to avoid driver shortages and other disruptions, volumes of unitised cargo, which includes ro-ro volumes under DfT calculations, also fell during the quarter.

The total volume of unitised traffic fell by 13% to 4.2m units during the first three months, with imports down 17% to 2.2m units. Outbound volumes fell by a smaller margin of 8% to 2m units.

“This is the first time the industry as a whole has been able to see the aggregate impact of Brexit on port volumes,” said British Ports Association Policy Manager Phoebe Warneford-Thomson.

“Due to the timing of the Brexit deadline falling at the same time as the third national lockdown, it is challenging to truly separate their impact and draw firm conclusions on which had a more harmful impact on trade in the first quarter.”

The first national lockdown had caused a more severe downturn in volumes, she added.

“We know from other data sources such as the ONS Trade Report, that January saw a fall in goods imports and exports that was the largest month-on-month drop since records began, which was ultimately driven by the Brexit deadline at the very end of 2020.

“Today's figures are consistent with other reports from trade statistics that suggest that businesses stockpiled ahead of the Brexit deadline in the fourth quarter, which led to a quieter first quarter than usual.”

This also indicated why inward unitised freight faced a larger fall than other categories, as there were concerns about ro-ro traffic ahead of the end of the transition period, she added.

The DfT said that freight levels were lower across all four quarters of 2020 when compared to 2019 due to the impact of the pandemic.

“The gap reduced in the fourth quarter, and then increased again in the first quarter of 2021,” it said.

“Traffic remains lower than levels expected pre-pandemic. The fall in imports and exports is consistent with the unwinding of stocks seen in January and February 2021 ONS trade statistics, after businesses stockpiled in December.”


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