By James Davey
LONDON (Reuters) - British supplies of some fresh food, mainly fruit and vegetables, are at risk of running out until a backlog of trucks at the port of Dover is cleared and links with France return to normal, the UK retail industry said on Wednesday.
A partial blockade by France to try to contain a new highly infectious coronavirus variant has left thousands of trucks stranded in Dover, Britain's main gateway to Europe, in the run-up to Christmas.
Paris and London agreed late on Tuesday that drivers carrying a negative COVID-19 test result could board ferries for Calais.
The military have started testing drivers but a British minister said it would take time to clear the backlog, hammering Britain's most important trade route for food days before it leaves the European Union's orbit.
"It is good news for consumers as the French borders have now reopened, however it is essential that lorries get moving across the border as quickly as possible," said Andrew Opie, director of food & sustainability at the British Retail Consortium (BRC), which represents more than 170 major retailers including the big supermarkets.
"Until the backlog is cleared and supply chains return to normal, we anticipate issues with the availability of some fresh goods," he said.
Richard Burnett, CEO of the Road Haulage Association, said the port of Dover remained gridlocked with about 8,000 trucks in the Kent area.
"This is going to take us into probably Christmas Day, Boxing Day. This is not going to be an easy fix," he told Sky News.
The BRC and Britain's two biggest supermarket groups, Tesco and Sainsbury's, have been warning since Monday that gaps would soon start to appear on store shelves unless transport ties with mainland Europe were quickly restored.
The main products at risk are lettuce, salad leaves, cauliflowers, broccoli, citrus fruit, raspberries and strawberries.
Supermarket groups have said they have plenty of supplies for the Christmas holiday but are concerned about availability next week. They also fear border disruption after Jan. 1 even if a free trade deal with the EU is agreed.
"Availability-wise we should be okay until Wednesday/Thursday next week - after this the backlog at the ports will begin to kick in," said one source at a big supermarket group, on condition of anonymity.
Some have started to use air freight to bring fresh produce from southern Spain and north Africa to plug the gaps until the backlog at the border eases.
Supermarkets face record Christmas demand because of COVID-19 restrictions on the hospitality industry and on travel and there are fears of panic-buying.
While big queues snaked around stores on what is one of the busiest food shopping days of the year, supermarket groups said customer behaviour has mostly been rational, with shoppers supplementing their normal Christmas purchases with one or two extra items, such as pasta and toilet roll.
Despite this, market leader Tesco has reintroduced some customer buying limits on toilet roll, hand wash, rice and eggs.
It already had limits on flour, dried pasta, baby wipes and anti-bacterial wipes.
(Reporting by James Davey; editing by Barbara Lewis)