Covid-19 impacts on production and distribution from January to March 2021

Review of Covid-19 impact on production and distribution of seafood from January to March 2021.

Please refer to the downloadable version of this report for a full set of references, citations, footnotes and hyperlinks to external websites.

Key points

  • Ongoing logistical issues related to Covid-19 challenged businesses.
  • New trade requirements heavily impacted transportation and logistics for EU-UK trade.
  • Processing businesses faced a range of supply and demand constraints during January to March.
  • Covid-19 continued to impact the UK workforce.
  • Systematic asymptomatic testing helped control the spread of the virus in factories.
  • Onshore training continued to be delivered successfully online.
  • In-person training for offshore workers remained limited due to lockdown restrictions.

Transportation and Logistics

Businesses struggled to get goods out through both air and sea freight routes during January to March. Due to ongoing global Covid-19 restrictions, many flights were cancelled, limiting air freight capacity and frequency. The global reduction of available empty containers in major producing countries (like China) remained an issue.

Covid-related changes to staffing at ports worldwide caused further delays in the release of containers . As a result of these supply and demand problems, some container rates were prohibitively expensive for businesses. Some lead times were also impractically long.

New rapid testing centres were opened for commercial drivers travelling between the UK and EU to limit the spread of Covid-19 and help prevent another hard border closure between the UK and France like that seen before Christmas. Rapid tests were free for drivers and expected to give results within an hour of testing, limiting transport disruption.

In addition to ongoing logistical issues related to Covid-19, new trade requirements heavily impacted on transportation and logistics for UK businesses. Bottlenecks in the supply chain continued to be identified and addressed throughout January to March as new routes, check points and transport hubs were operationalised.

New limitations on where vessels could land seafood catches came into effect from 1 January. In the Republic of Ireland , there were no designated landing ports for UK vessels until February. Once addressed, these new designations as well as new ferry routes to Dublin helped ease trade disruption between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
New routes and transport hubs were also operationalised in Great Britain to coordinate the export of live and fresh (short shelf life) products. In Scotland three new trade hubs began to coordinate groupage and prepare all the required export paperwork for consignments.

This system had a bumpy start with paperwork errors causing serious delays to seafood consignments in January and into February, particularly for groupage. Lack of clarity around the source of errors caused further delays.

Due to these issues, some major haulier companies temporarily stopped groupage consignments with small, consolidated vehicles until the situation improved. As a result, some businesses avoided using transport hubs altogether which put more pressure on direct export channels.

The groupage situation slowly but steadily improved, thanks largely to good communication between seafood businesses and haulier companies. Despite these improvements, businesses confirmed that by March exports were still taking one day longer to reach their destination, on average. These delays were costly for businesses that built their reputation on next day fresh and live seafood deliveries.

Others supplying chilled product to retailers in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland on a daily basis also faced groupage issues. Some suppliers were left with concerns that these retailers would stop sourcing products from Great Britain to avoid new trade frictions.

Businesses also highlighted the importance of finding the right import or export agent to ensure good access to EU markets and cited the availability of certifying officers as a major challenge for some businesses requiring health certificates for their products.

Limited transportation and logistics disruptions related to the end of the transition period were cited by seafood importers as the implementation of equivalent checks and paperwork on EU imports to the UK was delayed until later in the year.

Infographic showing Covid-19 and Brexit related factors impacting on exports and what these led to.
Infographic showing Covid-19 and Brexit related factors impacting on exports and what these led to.


Processing activity was constrained by both supply and demand challenges during January to March. Businesses serving the domestic hospitality and foodservice sector continued to see reduced demand due to the UK lockdown.

Those supplying export markets had to meet new paperwork requirements following the UK’s exit from the EU. New systems and documentation made the job more onerous and costly for some businesses. They also faced ongoing impacts of Covid-19 restrictions on demand, logistics and transport costs.

Many of those supplying domestic foodservice and export markets continued to operate at reduced capacity with some staff still furloughed. It is unclear how long businesses will be able to sustain this reduced operating model.

Businesses supplying domestic retail or selling directly continued to see strong demand during January to March. Many focussed on frozen seafood to meet heightened demand.

Increased retail demand put pressure on raw material sourcing for some businesses. Domestically sourced raw material became an issue for whitefish processors as uncertain quota allocations led to reduced landings from the UK fleet. Businesses unable to source sufficient raw material domestically either left orders unmet, risking permanent loss of custom, or turned to imported raw materials.

Businesses that switched to imported raw material for the first time or increased their share of imported raw material had to consider rules of origin and associated tariff costs. With raw material costs increasing, some businesses also cited concerns about future price inflation and spot pricing for specific species like salmon.

These issues may be exacerbated as demand from the UK foodservice sector increases in the coming months.


Across the supply chain, Covid-19 continued to impact the UK workforce during January to March. At the start of the year, many businesses faced issues with staff illness and absence. Covid safety for employees remained a top priority for businesses across the supply chain.

This was a major issue for large retailers. Tesco’s CEO reported that the retailer had around 30,000 staff absent because of Covid-19, including 7,000 vulnerable staff asked to shield at home. With staff absence rates around 10%, many of the 35,000 temporary Christmas workers were asked to stay on into the new year.

To help keep staff safe and limit the spread of the virus, supermarkets tightened restrictions for customers entering shops. Morrisons announced they would refuse entry to those not wearing face coverings (who weren’t medically exempt). Sainsbury’s said it would also challenge those who were shopping in groups.

Hull and Northeast Lincolnshire, a key manufacturing hub, became a regional hotspot as infection rates rose across the UK. Some seafood processors experienced factory outbreaks and worked to manage them with systematic lateral flow testing and case tracing.

Lateral flow tests were highly effective at identifying asymptomatic cases and limiting further spread of infection. These tests allowed carriers to be identified two days before showing symptoms and before they could pass on the virus. They also allowed asymptomatic staff that had been in close contact with a positive case to be tested and return to work sooner. These combined effects reduced the spread of infection in the workplace and limited disruptions to production.

Proactive testing along with the excellent compliance seen across the processing sector allowed businesses to continue to operate safely. With cases effectively managed, the incident management team created in late 2020 in Scotland was formally disbanded.

During January to March, some businesses also reiterated concerns about accessing sufficient labour. Manufacturers started to see shortages of labour on the operating floor and restaurant owners expected to face staff shortages on reopening . This was expected due to workers returning to their home countries or finding other jobs during the pandemic.

Experts called for retraining programmes to help people reskill or transfer their existing skills to new roles or sectors after a year of extended furlough and redundancies across the UK economy . The Scottish Seafood Association, in collaboration with Seafish, led the ‘Sea a Bright Future’ careers campaign to highlight the range of opportunities available in the seafood sector.

Alongside efforts to recruit, existing employees worked to stay on top of their training requirements. Remote and online training platforms developed during the first lockdown continued to be utilised by onshore workers.

Increased interest for onshore training was seen in January, which may reflect an anticipation of return to work for food handlers. There was also increased demand for food hygiene and quality assessment training for new Port Health Officers, recruited to carry out official border controls on imports.

Changes to LBM export rules led to increased interest in bivalve purification training. To support the need for local authority inspections and approvals, a new Bivalve Shellfish Hygiene Verification course for environmental health officers was developed. Further demand is anticipated as businesses seek to establish more purification centres in the UK.

While onshore training progressed well through remote delivery, crucial safety training for fishermen continued to be interrupted. Many fishermen’s training courses involve practical exercises and drills requiring access to specialist facilities many of which remained closed at the start of the year. When lockdown restrictions eased towards the end of March, 13 of the 19 Seafish-approved fishermen’s training providers were able to deliver approximately 30% of the training delivered during the same period in 2020.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency gave fishermen longer to comply with safety training requirements. However, the ongoing disruption caused by the pandemic continues to present safety concerns with crew unable to complete mandatory and refresher training courses.

Read more about Covid-19 impacts from January to March 2021


For further information on our review of Covid-19 impacts on the seafood industry contact:

Ana Witteveen
0131 524 8659
07815 428 554