import export docks

Over recent weeks, the problems around the UK’s major container ports have been mounting, amid high import volumes and a global shipping crisis.

Significant supply chain disruption has caused delays for many companies caused by the Christmas import rush, coronavirus challenges and uncertainty surrounding customs, with businesses moving goods into and out of the UK in preparation of a no-deal Brexit.

Now, following the emergence of a new strain of coronavirus in London and the South East, France shut its border with the UK for 48 hours on Sunday night. The move means a suspension on all passenger and human-handled freight transport, whether by road, air, sea or rail, coming from the UK.

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The deluge of factors combined has resulted in severe supply chain problems for multiple industries. Examining the impact on the mobility, assistive tech and independent living sectors, THIIS caught up with multiple companies to understand what impact this is having on the sector and what the short term holds.

Hauliers holding off until Brexit

One of the most significant short term challenges facing UK importers is finding European hauliers willing to enter the UK to deliver goods.

Last week, severe delays at UK ports saw lorries stretching for miles across Kent, resulting in costly congestion at Channel ports following an increase in diverted traffic from delays at container ports.

Interestingly, communications between a UK bed supplier and its logistics company regarding the transport of nursing beds from mainland Europe to the UK was shared exclusively with THIIS. It revealed the extent to which disruption has permeated the healthcare sector.

“The industry faces a multitude of shared logistical and supply chain-related challenges in 2021 which we must work together to overcome.” Dr Simon Festing

In the email exchange, a concerned logistics manager stated that hauliers are refusing to commit to coming to the UK until after Brexit, along with highlighting the difficulties in finding European hauliers willing to recommit to regular contracts.

Worryingly, this does not include the further disruption and backlogs being generated by the recent closure of borders to France for accompanied freight.

Prepared for the short term

While the trouble at the ports is wreaking havoc on supply chains, some in the industry claim to be well placed to handle the ensuing disorder at the ports.

“As well as slower deliveries, we’ll also incur a price increase due to import taxes and fees.” Matthew James

Bed and cot manufacturer Theraposture said that it has consistently increased its stocks over the last six months in anticipation of potential problems in December.

“We have stockpiled Mascot beds and Rotoflex beds to enable us to continue supplying our customers quickly,” reported the company.

“We anticipate no delays or difficulties at all because of the steps that we have taken.”

The additional preparation, though, did not come without its costs emphasised the Wiltshire furniture supplier.

“We have spent a great deal of money on the extra stock to safeguard ourselves and our clients from disruption,” added the company.

“We have taken on additional short-term storage to hold the extra stock.”

Another company that invested earlier in the year to ensure it had the capacity to manage supply chain problems was eFOLDi.

The powered mobility aids supplier confirmed that it was confident that its products will be free-flowing in the new year, having moved into larger premises to maintain a significantly larger stock inventory earlier in the year.

“All this before a potential no deal!”

The company noted, however, that it has had some last-minute delays to certain deliveries which have caused “understandable frustration”. Despite this, it says that it has managed any impacts by maintaining communication with suppliers, couriers and customers.

A worsening situation

As one mobility equipment supplier who wished to remain anonymous pointed out, products are still making their way to the UK’s shores – just much slower.

“We are experiencing delays and the situation has been getting steadily worse,” admitted the mobility supplier.

“This will not impact our customers in the near future because we have a good stock level of most products.”

While surplus stock means the company will be able to ensure end-users are not impacted, the company says that the disruption and delays do make “planning staff levels very difficult.”

Also, as one housing adaptation specialist confided, effects further up the supply chain can cause stock availability issues for those, while the immediate impact of border closures and backlogs may prevent key works from being completed.

“We are worried that orders placed with Danish suppliers for January delivery may arrive late and cause delays to the completion of projects,” said the company.

“Our main suppliers are UK based, including Linak who have stock, but there could be issues for the suppliers’ raw materials.

“All this before a potential no deal!”

Export container ship

Costly contingencies

Leading up to December, many companies in the sector have invested in contingencies to ensure they can continue to provide their products and services to the vulnerable in Q4 and Q1. These contingencies, such as holding more stock, can cause cost challenges for companies.

Discussing openly the challenges of managing shipments from Europe, Matthew James, Managing Director of Precision Rehab, noted that while it is too early to comment on the impact of borders being closed, the company has made significant changes to accommodate Brexit.

“Regarding Brexit, we predict that it will slow our deliveries by around two weeks for customs clearance and administration chain,” he revealed.

“We have ordered additional spare parts so this will minimise disruption for our clients during this difficult time. As well as slower deliveries, we’ll also incur a price increase due to import taxes and fees.”

The rising costs come amid a downturn in business, noted the mobility boss. The mobility equipment specialist is seeing fewer assessment requests as clients self-isolate. In response, Precision has introduced a range of measures to minimise disruption to clients, including giving end-users the choice of a home assessment, contactless assessment or a virtual service.

“We believe we have done all we can to minimise disruption to our supply chains but with no confirmation of a deal or no deal, we do not know all the full issues that this will cause,” adds Matthew.

“We have planned on a worst-case scenario on additional cost, delays and admin.

“Q1 and Q2 will be a learning curve for many in our industry but we have discussed this as much as possible with others within the industry to gain an understanding of the effects, the British Healthcare Trades Association (BHTA) has been very useful and offering information on a regular basis.”

Commenting on the evolving shipping situation, Dr Simon Festing, CEO of the BHTA, said: “News of the closure of France’s border to the UK comes as another headache to our members. It comes during the perfect storm of Brexit and COVID-19 disruption, at a time when the supply of healthcare equipment will be crucial amid this latest outbreak of the pandemic.

“Fortunately, many of our members have taken the necessary steps to ensure they have supplies available to manage any short-term disruption. However, with potential further supply chain issues caused by shortages of key materials, such as medical-grade foams, customs confusion and shipping problems, any further delays may prove problematic from the New Year onwards.

“The industry faces a multitude of shared logistical and supply chain-related challenges in 2021 which we must work together to overcome. The BHTA is calling on the UK Government to ensure all is being done to maintain the flow of goods in and out of the country to avoid any impact that supply shortages would have on vulnerable people.”

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