More than 4,000 food and drink lorries are being held up by the French travel ban which has caused gridlock at the port of Dover, industry experts have told MPs.
The Business, Energy, Industry and Sustainability Select Committee (BEIS) was also warned that halted trucks “need to move in the next 24 hours” if supermarkets are to avoid empty shelves.
The warning came as Brussels said travel from the UK to the EU should be “discouraged” due to fears about the mutant variant of coronavirus while talks continue to lift current bans on movement.
Earlier on Tuesday, Home Secretary Priti Patel said more than 1,500 lorries were queuing at Dover to cross into France.
Ian Wright, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), told MPs that the number of food and drink lorries affected by travel restrictions was far higher.
“I don’t think the number of trucks in the queue is the relevant number,” he said.
“We reckon about 4,000 are on their way to Dover at various points.
“Anyone seeing this all happening in the run-up would have parked somewhere else, somewhere more congenial and in a better state.”
On Monday evening, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that 174 lorries were queuing on the M20 due to the disruption.
Duncan Buchanan, director of policy, England & Wales, at the Road Haulage Association, told MPs he was disappointed with how the Government presented the levels of freight disruption on Monday evening.
“We were very disappointed because of the way it was portrayed last night, as it was seeking to minimise the nature of the problem,” he told the committee.
“This is a very serious problem – whether you have moved trucks from one place to another, it is irrelevant.
“This is a very different level of supply chain disruption, of the like we have probably never experienced.
“Many of the retailers are saying that we are up until Christmas, we will be fine until Christmas at least, but we must recover very fast to keep the shops fully stocked after Christmas. It’s a big worry.”
Retailers have called on shoppers not to panic buy, but have raised concerns that supply of some fresh produce, such as lettuce and broccoli, could be impacted by the disruption.
Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium (BRC), told the BEIS committee: “The real issue we face is what happens in the next day or so.
“If we do not see the empty trucks, which have already delivered to warehouses and stores, getting back over the channel, they will not be able to pick up the next consignment of fresh fruit, vegetables, salad vegetables.
“What we’ve been told by members is that unless those trucks can start travelling again and go back to Spain and Portugal and other parts of Europe, we will problems with fresh produce from December 27.
“What we need is for those trucks to move in the next 24 hours if we are to avoid seeing problems on our shelves.”
Mr Wright added that the disruption is also having a particular impact on food producers in the UK, warning that UK seafood could be destroyed if trucks continue to be halted.
“There are dozens of lorries there with product that is going off. There is a huge hit here to Scottish seafood,” he told MPs
“All my members will tell you that the insurance policies they have will not cover the loss of goods due to circumstances like this.
“If the Government was handing out train fares to go see Granny, they should compensate … those who through no fault of their own found themselves in this situation where millions of pounds of stock is going off as they sit in the queue.
“We’ll be pressing them very hard to look at a compensation scheme.”