COVID-19: Tesco and Sainsbury's warn of fruit and veg shortages if freight chaos not solved within days

·4-min read

Britain's two biggest supermarkets have warned gaps may start to appear on shelves within days due to France's ban on hauliers taking freight across the Channel from the UK.

The French action is over fears around the spread of a new, more infectious strain of coronavirus which is prevalent in London and southeast England.

Tesco and Sainsbury's said there would be shortages on products including lettuce, cauliflowers and citrus fruit if transport ties with the continent are not restored quickly.

However, the supermarkets said they had "plenty" of food for Christmas available in stores.

Their warning echoed a statement from the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), which said that fresh food supplies face "serious disruption" over Christmas.

The CBI's deputy director general Joshua Hardie said it was "essential" for the freight transport ban to be lifted, tweeting: "Lockdowns + brexit + additional border blocks is an unmanageable equation."

France has not banned lorries from travelling into Britain but the worry is that hauliers will not want to enter the country if they cannot then go back home.

A Tesco spokesman said: "We have plenty of food for Christmas available in stores and would encourage all customers to shop as normal.

"We've been building our stockholding of key products ahead of the Christmas peak and are working closely with our hauliers and suppliers to continue the supply of goods into our stores.

"If the current disruption continues then there may be reduced supply on a few fresh items, such as lettuce, cauliflower and citrus fruit later this week, but we don't expect any problems with availability on these lines today or tomorrow.

"We're doing everything we can to limit the impact for our customers."

Sainsbury's said: "All products for the Great British Christmas lunch are already in the country and we have plenty of these.

"We are also sourcing everything we can from the UK and looking into alternative transport for product sourced 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.

"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."

FDF chief executive Ian Wright said on Sunday night that the ban on 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".

He added: "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 British Retail Consortium's director of food and sustainability Andrew Opie said the situation "poses difficulties for UK capacity to import and export key goods during the busy Christmas period".

"While goods can enter from France, few haulage firms will be willing to send trucks and drivers across to the UK without a guarantee they can return to the EU in a timely manner," he said.

"This is a key supply route for fresh produce at this time of year: the channel crossings see 10,000 trucks passing daily during peak periods such as in the run-up to Christmas.

"We urge the UK government and the EU to find a pragmatic solution to this as soon as possible, to prevent disruption for consumers.

"Retailers have stocked up on goods ahead of Christmas which should prevent immediate problems.

"However, any prolonged closure of the French border would be a problem as the UK enters the final weeks before the transition ends on 31 December."

Logistics UK - formerly the Freight Transport Association - said it was "very concerned about the welfare of drivers travelling from the UK to France at this time and is urgently seeking more information for our members".

"Driver health and safety is our key concern, and it is essential that they continue to be recognised as key workers and given access to testing, if necessary, as a priority to ensure the continued movement of goods to and from France," the organisation said.

"Shoppers should not panic buy - retailers will be making every effort to ensure there is stock within the system, including fresh produce, and it is important that we remember that inbound traffic still has access to the UK.

"We are maintaining close contact with UK government to ensure that supplies of fresh produce are available throughout Christmas and the New Year."