Pre-Brexit stockpiling creates surge in Irish Sea shipping demand
Irish Sea shipping services are experiencing a surge in demand as businesses stockpile amid continuing uncertainty around post-Brexit trading arrangements.
Stena Line, which transports 65% of the freight moving between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, has chartered an extra ship to meet the capacity requirements.
Despite a year that has seen overall demand for freight services hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, dipping by as much as 30% in April, the volume of stock Stena Line moved across the Irish Sea last week was up 6% on the same week in 2019.
Paul Grant, who is Stena Line’s Irish Sea trade director, told the PA news agency: “We’re seeing big demand pre-Brexit.
“I think you can see people are anxious to get their stuff across and make sure they’ve got enough stock ahead of January 1.”
That date marks the end of the Brexit transition period and the commencement of trading arrangements governed by the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Under the protocol, which is contained in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, Northern Ireland will remain in the EU single market for goods.
That will require additional SPS (sanitary and phytosanitary) checks on animal-based products entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.
The UK and EU have yet to agree a practical framework which could potentially minimise the number of new regulatory checks required.
The major supermarket chains are among those warning about potential disruption to supply lines in the new year if an agreement does not emerge.
Mr Grant said it is “amazing” that there is still uncertainty over the level of checks which will be required with only seven weeks to go before the protocol comes into force.
“We can’t afford for there to be hold-ups and bottlenecks so we’re working with the authorities and the port operators and so forth to make sure that we can make it as seamless as it can possibly be,” he said.
“The challenge for everybody is the fact that there’s so much uncertainty and so much infrastructure is yet to be built.
“We’ve done our part in terms of putting on the ferry capacity and I think the hauliers for their part have done their part in making sure that their supply lines work, but it’s actually making sure that all these checks and processes are in place for the hauliers.”
Mr Grant said most of the stockpiling involves goods coming into Northern Ireland from Great Britain, through Cairnryan and Liverpool, but he said there is evidence of the same trend going the other way.
“The Northern Ireland Protocol question – that is the big question and no-one can answer that one yet,” he said.
“And we’re seven weeks away, it’s amazing.”
Stena Line this week marks the 25th anniversary of the Swedish-owned company setting up operations in Belfast after moving from Larne Port.
In that period it has transported 33 million passengers, seven million cars and seven million freight units across the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
Mr Grant said 2020 has undoubtedly been the most challenging year of the last 25, with the company having to deal with the impact of both Brexit and coronavirus.
Passenger numbers are down 50% on last year due to the pandemic.
However, Mr Grant expressed confidence that demand will return and that ferry travel may emerge more popular than ever, given the ability to socially distance and access fresh air during journeys.
Looking to the future, Mr Grant said Stena Line’s key focus is on sustainability and efforts to increase fuel efficiency and develop new eco-friendly technologies.