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UK port figures show extent of trade downturn

Port volumes fell by a fifth during the second quarter of this year as the pandemic took its toll on economic activity. Passenger and unitised cargoes saw the steepest downturns.

The volume of freight tonnage moving through the UK’s ports fell by nearly a fifth in the second quarter of 2020, as the full impact of the pandemic took its toll, according to figures from the Department of Transport.

Total volumes fell by 18% to 96.1m tonnes, but the effect on unitised freight carried by containers, trucks and trailers fell by 44% to 3.2m units.

The figures followed a first-quarter fall in volumes of 6% compared with the previous year and confirmed the impact of the coronavirus backdrop on trade flows.

“The dramatic fall in unitised traffic during this period is not surprising, as containers and freight carried by trucks are a good barometer of the performance of the overall economy,” said British Ports Association policy analyst Phoebe Warneford-Thomson.

“This fall represents a decline in finished goods bound for the high street as well as raw materials for manufacturing sites, both of which largely suspended operations during the lockdown.”

The 3.2m unitised cargoes highlighted the fact that ports had continued to supply the country with essential goods throughout the period, Ms Warneford-Thomson said.

Some cargoes, such as timber products, had performed well, as had items such as toilet rolls, where there was an abundance of demand for both finished products and raw paper pulp supplies, she added.

“In the months since June, which we do not yet have official figures for, ports have maintained resilience, as they have throughout 2020. While trade flows may not be at 100% levels, we are seeing some return to normality.”

Even passenger numbers passing through UK ports were beginning to improve, albeit from a low base. In April, passenger arrivals were down 97% on April 2019, but by July this had improved to being down only 67%.

“While this remains a vast decline from usual numbers, maritime was the first to see recovery and the sector is seeing a gradual increase in arrivals, especially compared to aviation, where arrival numbers remained at -90% in July 2020,” Ms Warneford-Thomson said.

Despite signs of improvement, however, the ports sector now had to prepare for the uncertainties of Brexit, the BPA said.

The association, which represents more than 100 UK ports, had indicated that ports may be increasingly busy in the run-up to the end of the transition period on January 1.

This was based on a growth in throughput ahead of the original March 2019 date for exiting the European Union, when volumes rose 6% as UK manufacturers stockpiled inventory ahead of expected trade disruptions.

It was thought a similar process might occur this year, but this is less certain now, owing to the effect of the coronavirus backdrop and the recession in the UK economy.

“No doubt, ports will once again play a vital role in preparing British industry for Brexit and they may see a similar increase in tonnage in fourth quarter of 2020 ahead of border changes from January,” the BPA said.

“We are therefore asking the government to provide stability and certainty in these turbulent times.”

Source: Lloyds Loading List

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