My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, but I want to focus on the physical supply chain for much of the nation’s food. Defra estimates that 50% of our food and feed arrives by sea ports. If noble Lords started their day with a cup of tea or coffee, or a glass of orange juice, it came by sea. The role of shipping and our ports is absolutely fundamental to our food supply. Here I should declare my interest as a council member and former chairman of Maritime UK.
Despite enormous challenges, the industry has done an incredible job in maintaining food deliveries to the nation and, along with others, to the supermarkets. Despite profound difficulties to do with crew changes and the collapse of passenger traffic on ferries, the shipping sector has delivered, keeping the country supplied. However, the crisis and the wider disruption to international trade has resulted in a large number of sea ferry and shore staff being furloughed.
The port sector has demonstrated magnificent operational resilience during the crisis. It has been operating with social distancing so far as possible since the earliest days, with absences in the low single-figure percentages, and impressive flexibility in ways of working, much of it helped by management and local trade union reps working together constructively.
The sector has been very fortunate in the help it has received from the Government, and I pay tribute here. Key-worker status was of course critical and furloughing a lifeline. Financial support for some shipping companies has eased the pressure, and the UK Government have been at the forefront of trying to assist in easing crew change problems. These measures have been deeply appreciated, but this is a fast-moving crisis and we now need to look to the future if we are to retain the ability to supply food and other essentials under all conditions.
The ports are now experiencing falling activity, with vessel calls down 25% to 30% as the initial surge for goods such as food has eased and industrial and consumer demand has fallen. The financial challenge for them is compounded by the difficulties of customers and tenants struggling to pay bills. The ports want to return to their previous high levels of investment and the Government can play an important role at zero to low cost to the public purse through adjusting regulations in areas such as planning and capital allowances.