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How are UK ports faring during the COVID-19 outbreak?

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Dry Bulk,

The Chief Executive of the British Ports Association (BPA), Richard Ballantyne, has spoken about how the ports industry is performing and the things it needs from government to continue to keep the country supplied throughout the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Ports and their workers, who are keeping imports of foods, essential products, energy and fuel coming into the country during the current coronavirus situation are unsung heroes. We have a wide variety of ports across the UK that facilitate a range of activities, including trade, energy provision and tourism. They also provide important hubs of economic activity and jobs in often deprived coastal communities.

The Key Workers across the UK include those in the ports, shipping and logistics industries who are literally ensuring the nation is fed and supplied, and helping us overcome COVID-19. However, to continue to do this, UK ports do need some assistance from policy makers.

Ports like other organisations and businesses performing critical roles in the country need PPE and testing capabilities to keep their workforce’s resilient. Many operators in our ports industry will also need to access assistance from the government’s financial support schemes and this assistance could be needed well after the lockdown finishes. With people suffering in hospitals and self isolating to protect those most at risk it seems insensitive to say that the lockdown, oil prices and impacts on shipping and maritime markets will leave the economy in a critical condition.

Even when shipping and maritime activities reduce dramatically, ports must ensure all services are maintained, such as managing marine operations, keeping channels dredged and quays manned, often with a full suite of staff. This means those in power do need to provide additional support and resources to ports.

The health of the shipping industry and the wider economy is inherently linked to the prosperity of a port and we support wider economic measures to ensure stability. However, global trade and global maritime traffic flows are inextricably linked, and UK ports perform a critical role for importers, exporters and intra-UK supply chains, so government must ensure there are measures in place to ensure ports can continue to play a key role in facilitating UK supply chains, and keeping supermarket shelves stocked, but also in the UK’s economic recovery from this crisis.

Many [UK] ports are limiting the numbers of staff needed on site, some taking advantage of furloughing. But still a significant amount of the 115 000 people who are employed in the ports industry need PPE and testing capabilities, and operators will need some type of help and flexibility from exiting lenders to ensure they remain liquid. The ports are however still open and keeping us supplied, but let us make sure this does not change.”

The BPA is involved in various discussions with government and on a range industry calls regarding the impact of the pandemic, as well as being in constant communication with members. Although currently there are no publicly available ‘real-time’ statistics, the BPA’s Policy and Economic Analyst, Phoebe Warneford-Thomson, has been assessing the impacts and she has prepared a snapshot of activity below. This includes analysis of the current situation, and some detail on each sector within our industry.

Impacts on ports - a snapshot

Shipping and customer activity

The total impact of this pandemic is yet to be seen, but ports are already under intense pressure, from both a downturn in customer activity, as well as pressure to offer rent holidays and reduce harbour dues. What can be seen already in the early figures is that international trade and EU markets activity has declined significantly. Data recently released for January shows exports down by 3.2% to EU markets and by 7.8% to the rest of the world. Shipping specialists have however forecast a 20% reduction in world trade in the 1Q20.

Dry bulks

Generally, most dry bulk cargos were holding up well until the government’s lockdown announcement. At least however agricultural products and animal feeds, which following a slow start to the year, potentially should remain fairly constant in the coming weeks as farming and food production continues (although there are regional and season-related variations).

Employee absence

Port employees are work hard and keeping our gateways open. Following the government’s recent advice about isolation, there was predictably a general increase in port employee absence rates as people followed national advice. The initial spike has calmed somewhat and port operators this week were reporting modest levels of absence rates, still largely for people self-isolating although some who were unfortunately suffering from coronavirus.

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