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Warning that P&O decision to fire UK staff without notice will hit cross-channel trade

Lorries wait to board cross channel ferries at Dover port. Image: Shutterstock

P&O’s decision to fire 800 employees without notice, via Zoom, is already hitting cross-Channel freight and UK importers and exporters, an international delivery specialist has warned.

Shipments between Great Britain and both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will also be affected, warns David Jinks, head of consumer research at parcel comparison website ParcelHero. He says: “P&O is not just a passenger ferry operator, its freight services are hugely important for UK supply chains and businesses. It carries around 15% of all freight in and out of the UK, more than 2,000 businesses use its services and it operates a third of the cross channel ferry market.

“At the beginning of 2020, P&O operated nine major freight routes with 350 departures a week operating 16 vessels. Last year it shipped 2.2 million freight units. Its services are also closely connected to sister company P&O Ferrymasters, which specialises in shipments from parcels to full loads, though these are not all reliant on ferry services.”

He says that although P&O, owned by parent company DP World, says it made a £100m year-on-year loss, trade and travel were both about to pick up again with the end of Covid-19 restrictions – for which P&O received almost £15m in government grants in 2020 – and as disruption from Brexit settles down. Now, says Jinks, it may be that the government has to accede to the call from transport union the TSSA to take over running key ferry routes in order to safeguard trade and travel.

Manuel Cortes, general secretary of the TSSA, says: ““The government should nationalise these vital ferry routes which allow people and goods to get to and from our country – P&O must be hit where it hurts.”

Jinks says: “Ironically, Brexit and Covid 19 have had a positive impact in some ways, in ensuring most international freight transport companies have become more agile and supportive of their hard-working staff. P&O, however, seems to have missed the lessons of the last few years and returned to the 1970s. Ongoing protests mean a longer period of cross-Channel freight disruption than would have been the case had it followed best practice. Clearly, P&O should have consulted with unions and staff about any potential dismissals and notified the Government that hundreds of jobs were at risk.

He adds that P&O’s extraordinary mishandling of the situation comes at a particularly difficult time for GB shipments to Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Complex rules about shipments to Northern Ireland, to avoid the creation of a land border with the EU, are still proving difficult to navigate. P&O’s Liverpool-Dublin and Cairnryan-Larne services helped keep things moving between GB and the ROI, he says, while P&O accounts for almost 10% of all unitised freight movements through Dublin Port. “It’s small wonder,” he adds, “that the Irish government has contacted P&O demanding details of its plans.”

The P&O Ferries Updates account on Twitter shows that ferry sailings are still cancelled. It says: “P&O Ferries services are unable to run for the next few days. We are advising travellers of alternative arrangements. We will update this feed every 3 hrs with the operational situation.” Travellers to Rotterdam are advised not to travel unless essentials while those travelling between Larne and Cairnryan should arrange their own transport. Those travelling from Dover to Calais are directed to travel via DFDS.

On its website, P&O Ferries says today that all services from the UK remain suspended and passengers who are not travelling for essential reasons should not go to the port.

In a statement, Doug Bannister, chief executive of the Port of Dover, says: “This has clearly been a tough decision for one of our long-standing ferry operators. The continued commitment to Dover is undoubtedly welcome and reinforces the desirability of the route, but the port is a close community and so we are acutely aware of the impact this will have on those directly affected as well as those who live and work with them. They are in our thoughts at this unsettling time.”

The port says it will be working with all of its customers and doing all it can to minimise any disruption to the local community as well as its wider operations, working with Kent partners as the transition to P&O Ferries’ new arrangements takes place. This afternoon, the port said that protests were no longer blocking traffic from reaching to the port.

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