Shipping crisis: Im being quoted £10,000 for a £1,600 container

“We were paying £1,600 per container in November, this month we’ve been quoted over £10,000,” says Helen White.

The founder of start-up Houseof.com, which imports lighting from China, says the rise in shipping costs means she’s making a loss on what she sells.

She’s one of many UK importers facing soaring freight costs amid a global shipping crisis that may last months.

A shortage of empty shipping containers in Asia and bottlenecks at the UK’s deep sea ports are behind the problems.

It was hoped the backlogs could be cleared during the Chinese New Year holiday in February, but instead a coronavirus outbreak in China is adding to the uncertainty facing firms.

In the UK the difficulties in international shipping have coincided with problems faced by businesses trading with the EU after Brexit.

One Manchester-based freight forwarder said the logistics industry is facing the most challenging conditions he’s seen in the 17 years he’s been in the business.

Craig Poole from Cardinal Maritime said during lockdowns, people have been turning to online shopping, and that’s causing a surge in demand for goods from China.

But some companies can’t absorb the skyrocketing freight costs that shipping lines are charging. That could lead to higher prices for consumers or businesses having to close.

“The really unfortunate thing is, the small businesses who can’t afford to pay those rates are going to go under as a result,” Mr Poole said.

Helen White’s lighting range is designed in the UK and manufactured in Guangzhou, China.

She said the six-fold increase in shipping costs is hard to take, especially when getting hold of a container “is like gold dust”.

“It’s really hard for a small business to absorb those costs. We’ll be making a loss on the goods we’re selling.”

At the other end of the supply chain, Chinese manufacturers and logistics firms say they are equally frustrated.

Johnny Tseng is the owner and director of J&B Clothing Company Ltd., which manufactures garments for some of the UK’s most popular fashion sites including Boohoo and Pretty Little Thing.

He’s been supplying clothes to British retailers for more than 40 years, but he says his family-run firm won’t be able to absorb inflated shipping rates for much longer.

“To be honest I don’t even know how we can survive if we carry on shipping things at this kind of cost.”

He says he’s now being quoted $14,000 to ship a container to the UK, when the usual price is $2,500.

The shortage of empty containers in China and congestion at UK ports caused some of his stock to miss the busy Christmas trading period. Now some customers are holding orders for their Autumn-Winter collections until next year.

“It’s chaos,” he said. “We are making a loss. We take it as a loss leader and keep our fingers crossed it will go back to normal after Chinese New Year, but it is a major issue if it persists this way.”

Usually during the Chinese New Year holiday, factories in China shut down for two weeks. There were hopes the pause in production would give UK ports a chance to clear the backlog of ships waiting to dock, and encourage shipping lines to move more empty containers back to Asia, which is a less profitable journey.

But rising numbers of coronavirus cases have prompted the Chinese authorities to stagger factory closing dates so that not all workers are travelling to their home regions at the same time. A worsening outbreak could lead to travel restrictions, in which case some factories may not stop production at all.

Craig Poole says some companies have been caught out by factories closing earlier than planned.

“A lot of businesses that can’t get those goods away are delaying orders until after Chinese New Year, so this situation could continue ’til March,” he said.

Patrick Lee from the Hong Kong-based Unique Logistics International said it could be even longer than that.

“Middle of the year at the earliest is what we’re hearing from end customers in the UK, and also from some of our people in the industry. Some of the carriers as well,” he said.

Mr Lee has called on the shipping lines to add more ships to help ease the backlog of stock orders building up at warehouses across China.

“They are increasing sailing but can increase a lot more. There are idle ships out there that they can reactivate without too much difficulty,” he said.

But a spokeswoman for the World Shipping Council said carriers are using all available capacity.

“The demand for transportation service far exceeds supply. As in any free market, this puts upward pressure on rates,” she said.

Shipping lines have been trying to drive down demand from British importers by charging a premium for deliveries to the UK, or bypassing the country’s ports altogether.

One shipping line recently offered freight rates of $12,050 for a 40ft container from China to Southampton, but charged just $8,450 for the same container to travel from China to Rotterdam, Hamburg, or Antwerp.

The UK’s largest container port at Felixstowe has been experiencing long delays since October. Congestion has also been a problem at the Port of Southampton, albeit to a lesser extent.

The bottlenecks were initially caused by a surge in imports as business activity picked up after the first wave of the pandemic. Huge shipments of PPE and the usual Christmas rush added to container volumes and ports struggled to cope.

“Most of the carriers just don’t want UK cargo because of the issues when the vessels dock, so mainly they’re favouring European ports and we are having to truck containers over,” said freight forwarder Craig Poole.

He said that adds a cost of up to £2,000 per container, and takes an extra seven to ten days to reach the delivery point in the UK.

For business-owners like Helen White , the difficulties affecting global shipping can’t be solved quickly enough.

“Lots of little start-ups are really hurting,” she said. “It has been paired with logistical nightmares across Europe as well. It just feels like logistics is falling apart at the moment. It’s hard to see where the resolution is.”

Covid vaccine: No impact on delivery after Storm Christoph floods

There have been “no adverse effects” on the coronavirus vaccine roll-out caused by recent flooding, the Welsh Government has said.

Homes were evacuated in Skewen, Neath Port Talbot, on Thursday as heavy rain caused issues across the country.

Swansea Bay health board said none of its mass vaccination centres or GP surgeries had been affected by floods.

It added anyone struggling to get to a vaccination appointment because of the flooding would be able to rearrange.

Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board also said it was not aware of flooding in north Wales causing any issues for the vaccine roll-out.

Wrexham council leader Mark Pritchard said on Thursday that teams worked to ensure the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, made on Wrexham Industrial Estate, was not lost in the floods.

The latest figures released on Friday showed 212,317 people in Wales had received their first dose of a coronavirus vaccine, with a further 415 receiving a second dose.

About 80 people in Skewen had to be evacuated from their homes after streets were left under water.

Fire crews returned to the scene on Friday to continue to pump floodwater away from houses.

Meanwhile, a family in Rossett, Wrexham county, had to be rescued by helicopter after their home became surrounded by floodwater on Thursday night.

On Friday, Health Minister Vaughan Gething told BBC Radio Wales Breakfast that efforts to rehouse those affected by the floods were being done in “as Covid-secure a way as possible”.

Dorothy Edwards, Covid-19 vaccination programme director for Swansea Bay health board, said: “None of our mass vaccination centres have been impacted by flooding and we’re not aware of any particular issues in primary care.

“Of course we will be sympathetic if there are people struggling to get to their appointment and if they are booked in at an mass vaccination centres they need to ring the booking line and the appointment will be rearranged.”

The Welsh Government said: “There have been no adverse effects on the vaccine roll-out due to flooding.”

Adrian Murphy: Man jailed for dancers devils breath drug murder

A man who poisoned a gifted dancer with a date-rape drug known as devil’s breath has been jailed for life for his murder.

Joel Osei, 25, and his partner, Diana Cristea, 19, used Grindr to befriend men before drugging and robbing them.

Jurors at Croydon Crown Court heard the couple targeted gay men on the app in order to rob them of their money and valuables.

Osei was jailed at the same court for a minimum of 32 years.

Mr Murphy’s body was discovered in his Battersea flat by his best friend on 4 June 2019.

Toxicology reports showed he died from an overdose of scopolamine – a substance commonly used in rapes and kidnappings in South America.

After killing the 44-year-old, the couple attempted to buy $80,000 (£62,000) worth of diamonds from a jeweller in New York, the court heard.

Osei, of Seven Sisters, and Cristea, of Mill Hill, were also involved in the poisoning of a second man with the same drug two days earlier, jurors were told.

The victim, who cannot be named for legal reasons, survived but was taken to hospital after being found by a neighbour almost naked, extremely agitated and confused.

Items including his wallet, bank cards and two laptops worth about £2,000 were stolen.

Osei used the same phone number to contact both victims and was later identified by the surviving man.

Analysis of Osei’s phone and laptop linked Cristea to the crime and revealed he bought the scopolamine online in early May 2019.

Jailing Osei for life on Friday, Mr Justice William Davis said the pair “left Mr Murphy for dead”.

He said: “You gave Mr Murphy, quite deliberately, a significant dose of a drug which you know could cause death.”

Osei was given a concurrent sentence of five years in prison for administering a poison or noxious substance so as to endanger life against the surviving victim, and no separate penalty for multiple counts of theft and fraud.

Cristea, who was convicted of the same offences, will be sentenced at a later date.

Coronavirus: Brave and fearless police officer dies aged 40

A police officer “who was never seen without a smile” has died at the age of 40 after testing positive for Covid.

Abbasuddin Ahmed, who joined Greater Manchester Police (GMP) in 2017, died in hospital on Thursday after contracting the virus in December.

The father of two, known as Abbas, was described by his colleagues as “a committed police officer, true friend and family man”.

He was “the greatest brother in and out of work”, his colleagues added.

“Abs lived up [to] his name meaning ‘lion’ – brave, loyal, a fighter, protective, and completely fearless. Abs will live in our hearts forever.”

Paying tribute to his friend and colleague, Insp Abid Sardar, co-chairman of the GMP Muslim Police Association, said: “Abbas will be greatly missed by everyone that knew him.

“I have spent time with Abbas both in a professional and personal capacity.

“I would describe him as a committed police officer, true friend and family man,” he added.

Ch Insp Neil Cook, from GMP’s Trafford division, said PC Ahmed was a “much-valued member” of the team who “will be truly missed”.

He added: “Abbas had been away from frontline duties during the pandemic to look after his health.

“But [he] was continuing to work from home and was looking forward to returning and getting back onto the streets to continue serving the community when it was safe to do so.

“To see the shock and sadness of colleagues is an awful but pertinent reminder of the dangers of this terrible virus.”

A fundraising page set up in memory of PC Ahmed raised almost £8,000 within eight hours.

Covid-19: Gateshead families fined for barbecue lockdown breach

Five people who held a barbecue with their children on the snow-covered County Durham moors have been fined for flouting Covid-19 lockdown rules.

The group of 13, which included eight children, had travelled 20 miles (32km) from Gateshead to Waskerley, near Consett, in three vehicles on Thursday.

The adults from three households were each fined £200, Durham police said.

Police added “unnecessary strain” could have been put on emergency services if the group had crashed in poor weather.

They added they could have also put themselves at risk of catching coronavirus.

The adults initially told police they did not believe they had done anything wrong, the force said.

After receiving fixed penalty notices they were sent home with their children, the youngest of whom was aged seven months old.

Supt Ritchie Allen, of Durham Constabulary, said some people were “bending the rules” and “putting others at risk”.

“While we know the stay at home guidance has been particularly challenging for many people, travelling to host a barbecue get together with other households is not acceptable,” he said.

“Those in attendance risked not only their own lives but also those of others and could put extra pressure on an already struggling NHS.”

The government’s guidelines warn that during the lockdown it is against the law to leave your home without a “reasonable excuse”.

Covid-19: Couple in only chance wedding in Milton Keynes Hospital

An engaged couple taken to hospital in the same ambulance with Covid-19 were able to marry moments before the man was sedated and put on a ventilator.

Elizabeth Kerr, 31, and Simon O’Brien, 36, were taken to Milton Keynes University Hospital with breathing difficulties on 9 January.

Staff rallied to arrange a wedding as the groom’s condition worsened.

They held off intubating Mr O’Brien so the ceremony could go ahead. The couple are now recovering in hospital.

Mrs Kerr, a nurse, and Mr O’Brien had planned to marry in June.

Both contracted the disease and were taken to hospital together when their oxygen levels fell dangerously low.

They were placed on separate wards but when Mrs Kerr told nurse Hannah Cannon about their wedding plans, she asked her if they would like to marry in the hospital.

Mrs Kerr said she was told it could be their only chance.

“Those are words I never, ever want to hear again,” she said.

However, while staff were securing the wedding licence, Mr O’Brien’s condition further deteriorated and on 12 January he was placed on the intensive care unit, to be put on a ventilator.

They waited to intubate him just long enough for the ceremony to go ahead.

Ms Cannon said: “With lots of teamwork… we were able to give them a wedding, not necessarily the wedding that they would have initially intended, but certainly something positive, remarkable and memorable for them to really hold on to.”

She filmed the marriage for the couple’s families and friends, and catering staff at the hospital provided a cake.

Shortly after saying “I do”, Mr O’Brien was placed on the ventilator.

The couple have now been reunited on a recovery ward and were able to kiss for the first time since being married.

Mrs Kerr said having the wedding meant “everything” to them.

“If we hadn’t had each other and we hadn’t been given that opportunity to get married, I don’t think both of us would be here now,” she added.

Covid-19: Attempts being made to increase cancer surgeries in NI

Attempts are being made to ensure more “red-flag” cancer patients have surgery as early as next week, no matter where they live in Northern Ireland.

A downturn in Northern Ireland’s cancer services resulted in 275 people having operations cancelled in one week.

Some health trusts cancelled surgeries due to the pressure from the pandemic.

A regional approach is being adopted, meaning many people will have to travel beyond their health trust area to receive treatment.

BBC News NI understands the plan is to target cancer surgeries for patients who do not require either high dependency or critical care beds post-surgery.

That could include urology, breast, head, neck and colon cancers.

The private sector is also to provide theatres for additional surgeries.

In February, the health service will have access to 60 operating sessions in Kingsbridge Private Hospital in Belfast for cancer surgery or diagnostics, as well as facilities for up to 25 outpatient procedures, the BBC understands.

None of that will be for elective surgery, such as hip and knee operations – it will be either red-flag cancer or category one and category two urgent surgery.

Private hospital facilities based at the North West Independent Hospital in Ballykelly, County Londonderry, and the Ulster Independent Clinic in Belfast will also be used.

The Department of Health told BBC News NI: “In view of the scale of the backlog in treatment that we will face after the pandemic, it is expected that independent sector capacity will be required for the foreseeable future.”

Gregory Boyce was diagnosed with throat cancer eight years ago and has been receiving treatment ever since.

The 58-year-old has also recently had tests for bowel cancer at Altnagelvin Area Hospital in Londonderry.

The decision from the Western Health Trust to temporarily suspend some cancer surgeries on Thursday left him seriously concerned.

“It’s a significant fear for me – the tests aren’t looking great at the minute,” he said.

“If I am diagnosed with bowel cancer I want to get the treatment as soon as possible, as do all cancer patients, so I am hoping the NHS can get back to some way of working.”

Many of Northern Ireland’s medical staff are aware that cancer surgery needs to restart.

While some red-flag surgeries have been carried out, especially in the South Eastern Health Trust, many have been cancelled due to a lack of theatre nurses able to deal with both cancer and Covid-19 simultaneously.

It is thought deploying medically-trained military personnel to assist in hospitals will free up staff, especially theatre nurses, to work with cancer patients instead.

In a statement to the BBC, the Western Health Trust said it hoped to reschedule a number of patients next week who had red-flag cancer procedures cancelled.

It is hoped that other health trusts will follow.

A regional response to the cancer crisis means people living in Belfast will be expected to travel to Altnagelvin Area Hospital, for instance, if that is where their form of cancer is being treated, and vice versa.

The move is an attempt to prevent a postcode lottery developing when it comes to tackling the spiralling number of cancer cases.

Covid-19: Two £10,000 fines for 150-person funeral

A funeral director has been fined £10,000 after police were called to a funeral with close to 150 people in attendance.

Hertfordshire Police said the large gathering in Welwyn Garden City on Thursday was reported to them by members of the public.

Coronavirus rules mean a maximum of 30 people can attend a funeral.

A second person was fined, by Bedfordshire Police, for when the gathering was in Arlesey, Bedfordshire.

Supt Nick Caveney, of Hertfordshire Police, said: “This was a clear and blatant breach of the current restrictions.”

He said the fine was given to the funeral director “for not managing this event correctly and advising their clients of the rules”.

“We implore all business owners to ensure they are following the restrictions safely and responsibly,” he said.

“Flagrant breaches such as this will not be tolerated.”

The force said it had worked with other agencies and the family in advance of the funeral “in an attempt to ensure the safety of those attending and that of the wider public”.

But when officers attended they found the large number of people at the church, and a 41-year-old man from Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, was handed the £10,000 fine after police served a fixed penalty notice.

Several members of the public had contacted the force about the funeral at the Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady, Queen of Apostles on Woodhall Lane.

Bedfordshire Police said a man in his 30s was issued with the fine over the gathering.

Ch Supt John Murphy from the force said: “Fines and enforcement are a last resort for us, and we will always engage and work with families in the first instance.

“But we need to take firm action against those who brazenly decide to go against the guidelines outlined by the government and put a large number of people at risk.”

Inquiry uses legal powers to seek Salmond evidence

The Holyrood inquiry into the handling of harassment claims against Alex Salmond is using legal powers to seek documents from the Crown Office.

The documents include messages between SNP officials, civil servants and advisers relating to Mr Salmond’s legal challenge to the complaints process.

It is the first time MSPs have issued such a formal request in the history of the Scottish Parliament.

Convener Linda Fabiani said the action was necessary to continue its work.

The committee was established in the wake of a judicial review court case where the Scottish government admitted its internal investigation of two harassment complaints against Mr Salmond had been unlawful.

The government had to pay out more than £500,000 in legal expenses to the former first minister, who was later acquitted of 13 charges of sexual assault in a separate criminal trial.

The notice, formally issued by Holyrood chief executive David McGill, states that the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) “may hold documents relevant and necessary for the committee to fulfil its remit”.

The committee is seeking the release of documents detailing text or WhatsApp communications between SNP chief operating officer Susan Ruddick and Scottish government ministers, civil servants or special advisers between August 2018 and January 2019, that may be relevant to the inquiry.

It also wants to see any documents linked to the leaking of complaints to the Daily Record newspaper in August 2018.

Ms Fabiani said: “Throughout this inquiry, the committee has been determined to get as much information as possible to inform its task.

“This is a step that hasn’t been taken lightly, and is a first for this Parliament, but which the committee felt was needed as it continues its vital work.”

The Crown Office has been given until 17:00 on 29 January to respond to the notice.

In other developments, Mr Salmond has been given a deadline by which to appear before the committee.

A letter from Mr Salmond’s lawyers cited “health and safety grounds” in the midst of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic as a reason for his reluctance to appear at Holyrood on 2 February.

Ms Fabiani has now told the ex-SNP leader that if he is not available then – and cannot attend on alternative dates that week, either in person or remotely – then the “committee regrets that it will not be able to take oral evidence from you”.

In these circumstances, she said Mr Salmond would be “free to submit further written evidence”.

Mr Salmond’s appearance is much anticipated following his written submission earlier this month in which he alleged that Nicola Sturgeon misled parliament.

Ms Sturgeon, who “entirely rejects” his claims, is expected to give evidence in the coming weeks and has said she is looking forward to putting her side across.

Meanwhile, the committee has once again written to the Scottish government urging it to waive legal privilege and release the advice it received from lawyers regarding the case.

A Crown Office spokesman said: “COPFS has received the correspondence from the committee and will respond in early course.”

A Scottish government spokeswoman said: “We will consider the committee’s letter – but the Scottish government has already taken unprecedented steps to provide the committee with access to relevant information to allow it to fulfil its remit.

“The government has, exceptionally, provided the committee with access to a summary of the legal advice on the judicial review on a confidential basis.”

Coronavirus: UK variant may be more deadly

Early evidence suggests the variant of coronavirus that emerged in the UK may be more deadly, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said.

However, there remains huge uncertainty around the numbers – and vaccines are still expected to work.

The data comes from mathematicians comparing death rates in people infected with either the new or the old versions of the virus.

The new more infectious variant has already spread widely across the UK.

Mr Johnson told a Downing Street briefing: “In addition to spreading more quickly, it also now appears that there is some evidence that the new variant – the variant that was first identified in London and the south east – may be associated with a higher degree of mortality.

“It’s largely the impact of this new variant that means the NHS is under such intense pressure.”

Public Health England, Imperial College London, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the University of Exeter have each been trying to assess how deadly the new variant is.

Their evidence has been assessed by scientists on the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag).

The group concluded there was a “realistic possibility” that the virus had become more deadly, but this is far from certain.

Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, described the data so far as “not yet strong”.

He said: “I want to stress that there’s a lot of uncertainty around these numbers and we need more work to get a precise handle on it, but it obviously is a concern that this has an increase in mortality as well as an increase in transmissibility.”

Previous work suggests the new variant spreads between 30% and 70% faster than others, and there are hints it is about 30% more deadly.

For example, with 1,000 60-year-olds infected with the old variant, 10 of them might be expected to die. But this rises to about 13 with the new variant.

This difference is found when looking at everyone testing positive for Covid, but analysing only hospital data has found no increase in the death rate. Hospital care has improved over the course of the pandemic as doctors get better at treating the disease.

The new variant was first detected in Kent in September. It is now the most common form of the virus in England and Northern Ireland, and has spread to more than 50 other countries.

The Pfizer and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine are both expected to work against the variant that emerged in the UK.

However, Sir Patrick said there was more concern about two other variants that had emerged in South Africa and Brazil.

He said: “They have certain features which means they might be less susceptible to vaccines.

“They are definitely of more concern than the one in the UK at the moment and we need to keep looking at it and studying this very carefully.”

The prime minister said the government was prepared to take further action to protect the country’s borders to prevent new variants from entering.

“I really don’t rule it out, we may need to take further measures still,” he said.

Last week the government extended a travel ban to South America, Portugal and many African countries amid concerns about new variants, while all international travellers must now test negative ahead of departure to the UK and go into quarantine on arrival.

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