Lamb trade exports, abattoirs and food supplies face major disruption after France suspended accompanied freight shipments from the UK.
France closed its borders for 48 hours after the UK confirmed a highly infectious new coronavirus strain across south-east England.
Craven Arms-based exporter Euro Quality Lambs just managed to get three lorries through before the 11pm cut-off on Sunday (20 December).
A fourth shipment, which was in the queue, had to return to Shropshire.
“Luckily, this was palletised offal products which have a better shelf life than the carcasses,” said managing director Rizvan Khalid.
“We have looked at trying to go through Rotterdam, which is not ideal, but there’s so much more going through there that there’s a backlog there, too.”
“Some abattoirs have already stopped slaughtering because of this. We have loads planned for tomorrow,” he added.
“It’s a crucial week for us in the run up to Christmas; we don’t know what’s happening, so it makes it very difficult. The concern at the moment is whether it is 48 hours, or longer.
“If it’s 48 hours, it’s still a problem because of the backlog. But if it’s longer, we’ll have to cut back on production.
“We’re still hopeful something will happen – there’s a Cobra meeting this morning but we don’t know what will come out of that. It’s all very fluid.
“Everyone is scrambling to try and find a solution. We’re speaking to the hauliers to see if there is a way.”
Euro Quality Lambs has long-standing customers in France, Germany, Belgium and Portugal. Its Craven Arms plant can handle up to 25,000 lambs a week.
The National Sheep Association said the situation would affecting a number of UK processors who had planned a last push to export lamb before the end of the year.
“The closure of the French ports is really disappointing,” said NSA chief executive Phil Stocker.
The sheep sector had responded to calls to prepare for Brexit – and had been acutely aware of the probability of disruption to exports in the first weeks of 2021.
“For the ‘cliff edge’ to have been brought forward by 10 days due to Covid-related closures is unexpected and frustrating,” said Mr Stocker
“Export markets are highly important to the UK sheep sector but this, once again, shows the importance of investing in our domestic market.
“Whenever disruption occurs its our domestic market we rely on.”
The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) said the suspension of accompanied freight also had potential to cause “serious disruption” to UK fresh food imports.
“Continental truckers will not want to travel here if they have a real fear of getting marooned,” said FDF chief executive Ian Wright.
“The government must very urgently persuade the French government to exempt accompanied freight from its ban.”
Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said the closure of France to UK traffic posed difficulties during a key time of year.
“Few haulage firms will be willing to send trucks and drivers across to the UK without a guarantee they can return to the EU in a timely manner.
“This is a key route for fresh produce at this time of year – the channel crossings see 10,000 trucks passing daily during peak periods, such as in the run-up to Christmas.”