UK ‘big four’ grocer Sainsbury’s has warned that there could be gaps on the shelves of its supermarkets unless the trade link between the UK and France is restored.

UK peer Tesco issued a statement to the same effect.

France announced on Sunday (20 December) that it was suspending freight traffic from the UK to France for 48 hours as a necessary response to the prevalence of a new variant of coronavirus in Britain.

Lorries attempting to leave the UK for France are being turned back from ports such as Dover and there is a fear that haulage companies based on the Continent will not send supplies to the UK in case their trucks get marooned.

Sainsbury’s has added its voice to concerns issued by industry body the Food and Drink Federation, which said the situation has the “potential to cause serious disruption” to the UK’s food supplies.

News agency Reuters quoted Sainsbury’s as saying that while supplies for the traditional Christmas dinner are plentiful, post-Christmas there could be a shortage of produce such as vegetables and fruit.

“If nothing changes, we will start to see gaps over the coming days on lettuce, some salad leaves, cauliflowers, broccoli and citrus fruit,” the supermarket group said.

The grocer has urged the British and French governments to find a solution that prioritises the immediate passage of food at the ports.

Fellow grocer Tesco said that “there may be reduced supply on a few fresh items, such as lettuce, cauliflower and citrus fruit later this week, but we don’t expect any problems with availability on these lines today or tomorrow”.

The British Retail Consortium has also warned of possible supply problems because of the border issue.

In a statement, Andrew Opie, its director of food and sustainability, said: “This is a key supply 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.

“We urge the UK government and the EU to find a pragmatic solution to this as soon as possible, to prevent disruption for consumers. 

“Retailers have stocked up on goods ahead of Christmas which should prevent immediate problems. However, any prolonged closure of the French border would be a problem as the UK enters the final weeks before the transition ends on 31 December.”

Organisations representing food and beverage businesses on the other side of the Channel are also keen that things should return to normal as soon as possible.

FoodDrinkEurope director general Mella Frewen said: “The food supply chain relies on the rapid transfer of goods across the Channel and we urge the European Commission to work with national authorities to exempt food and drink products from the travel ban, to help drivers out of queues, while ensuring all health and safety measures are applied, and to step up the EU’s crisis response. Since the start of the Covid pandemic, food and drink has been considered as ‘essential’ by the EU and allowed to move across borders with as little disruption as possible, and that should continue.

“With this latest crisis, and Brexit still not resolved, we are staring down the barrel of a perfect storm.”