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Latest figures show impact of coronavirus taking its toll on UK trade

Published by , Editorial Assistant
Dry Bulk,

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is only just beginning to be revealed in figures, but there are signs of recovery on the horizon for certain sectors, according to analysis published by the British Ports Association (BPA) and specialist analysts Port Centric Logistics Partners Ltd (PCLP).

Economic figures do not yet show the full extent of the downturn. Though with the publishing of Q1 2020 economic data, the darkness is now receding on the anticipated initial impact of the Coronavirus pandemic. With the recent news that UK GDP has fallen by 2% in terms of volume in the first quarter of this year, the greatest fall since Q4 2008, the overall economic outlook for all UK industries appears bleak.

However, with governments making plans for the safe re-opening of the UK economy, blue skies could be on the horizon. Ports are important regional employers, both directly and indirectly so any downturn can have negative impacts on certain communities. That said the continued health control measures designed to limit future spikes, such as the new quarantining rules, are sure to slow the economic recovery.

Now, as many sectors look to establish a path to recovery, the BPA and analysts at Port Centric Logistics Partners (PCLP) have prepared a snapshot of economic activity and port trade figures. Commercial advisory firm for the global ports and logistics industries, PCLP is a partner of the BPA and assists with regular industry economic monitoring and reporting.

Commenting on the figures, Richard Ballantyne, Chief Executive of the British Ports Association, said:

“Quarter 1 of this year saw significant contractions in production and construction. Alongside this household consumption fell by 1.7% in the first three months of this year, the largest quarterly contraction since Q4 2008. This will have a significantly detrimental impact on UK businesses and ports, with a particular slowdown in containerised imports. However, demand for consumer goods should soon be re-established as the retail sector reopens in accordance with social distancing guidelines.

There was also a slowdown in Roll-on Roll-off vehicle freight transported on the UK’s network of ferry operators, as in Q1 accompanied traffic volume declined by 12.4% compared to 1Q19. Unaccompanied freight was less severely hit with volume in that sector reduced by 9.5%, but this is no doubt also significant. However, perhaps more than most this sector has helped keep supermarkets stocked with food and essentials during the lockdown.

Furthermore, ferry passenger volumes released by the Department for Transport show the initial impact of travel restrictions. The services connecting the UK and the Republic of Ireland saw a decline at 7.2% in Q1 and the crossings to mainland Europe were even more severely hit by a decline in Q1 of 25.8% against 1Q19. However, we are discussing options with government regarding the possibility of establishing ‘sea bridges’ with neighbouring countries where the COVID-19 risk is low, which we hope could lead more passengers to opt to travel via ferry, avoiding complications brought by aviation.

This has been a tough start to the year for many parts of the economy and we are keen to explore how the Government and industry can kick start the recovery. Ports are significant economic powerhouses and provide hubs of employment so a healthy trade climate is important to regional prosperity.”

Trade activity overview

Food and Essentials

The volume of imported vegetables, fruit, meat products and beverages all declined in Q1 2020 but at a much slower pace than the majority of goods handled at Britain’s ports. For example, vegetables and fruit (the third largest UK import sector behind oil & gas imports) declined by 5.8% in volume compared to 1Q19, against a benchmark rate of 15.8% across all other commodities (excluding oil and gas). British ports facilitate this essential trade that arrives by various modes including RoRo trailers, refrigerated containers and break bulk shipments, helping to keep supermarket shelves stocked.


British car production fell by -99.7% in April with just 197 units made, after COVID-19 forced the closure of factories, according to SMMT. They report this has been the lowest monthly output since Second World War and year-to-date production is down -27.6%, with 121,811 fewer cars built. Revised independent outlook now expects sub-1 million units in 2020 with lost production costing sector up to £12.5 billion.

Unsurprisingly, Q1 figures reveal that falling goods exports to non-EU countries were seen largely in machinery and transport equipment, and miscellaneous manufactures. While, falling imports from non-EU countries were largely driven by fuels, miscellaneous manufactures, and machinery and transport equipment, which each fell by around £0.7 billion. We have welcomed the opening of car showrooms which has helped give car manufacturers more confidence and we should begin to ease storage pressures at and around ports who specialise in automotive trade.


Ports facilitate sizeable amounts of building materials used in infrastructure and construction projects. From house building to transport infrastructure investment much of the raw materials arrive into the UK by sea. Construction output fell by 5.9% in the month-on-month all work series in March 2020; driven by a 6.2% decrease in new work and a 5.1% decrease in repair and maintenance. These were the greatest falls since monthly records began in January 2010.

Anecdotal evidence received from across the industry suggested the Coronavirus pandemic was a significant factor to these large falls as construction activity ceased or reduced significantly in March 2020. This impact will be notably seen in Scotland, where construction works were completely halted under the Scottish government guidance.

Furthermore, data collected by the BPA revealed in May that for port construction projects planned for this period, 64% are paused for the time being, 15% are progressing, but at a slower pace, 8% say that they have been cancelled completely and only 13% say there has been no impact.


Oil and related cargoes make up more than a third of the UK’s international trade. The transport sector represents 55% of the world’s oil demand, but with significantly fewer people moving around globally, naturally, the sector has experienced significant losses. In Q1 total indigenous production of crude oil decreased by 5.4 per cent. Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen estimates a 10-23% loss to jobs in the UKCS workforce, with most job impacts likely to be in the supply chain.

Furthermore, in the 1Q20 imports of coal continued to decline, down to 1.1 million t (lowest quarterly value in the published time series). This was 60% lower than in the same period last year.

In recent years, renewable energy has become more common in the UK. With regards to offshore wind production, Global Data Energy finds that before the COVID-19 outbreak, annual installations were estimated at 1.22 GW in 2020. After the outbreak, it is expected that the annual installations will reach 980 MW in 2020. Outputs of existing wind farms negatively impacted due to decreased energy demand under lockdown travel bans, supply chain issues and deferred maintenance.


Fishing activity is still abundant in many regions, however with the closure of restaurants and other businesses during the lockdown has hit demand. Some whitefish catches remain healthy many ports with smaller fleets and landings that are exported to Europe have seen a dramatic slowdown in activity, partly due to the closure of restaurants. Generally, seafood prices have fallen substantially and this has discouraged many fishermen from taking boats out. This has resulted in major declines in revenue for the ports and many operators are in real trouble.

Data shows that while overall UK landings for the 12 months to March 2020 are 7.0% lower than in 2013, landings from foreign vessels are 26.7% down while landings by UK vessels are down by 4.1%. However, we will have to wait and see the final impact of COVID-19 reflected in these figures.

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