UK Government and the Northern Ireland Executive jointly fund £17m package to keep Irish Sea freight routes operating during the coronavirus crisis. Tony McDonough reports
Stena Line’s Birkenhead to Belfast ferry route is part of a £17m Government package to ensure Irish Sea freight links continue during the coronavirus crisis.
With freight and passenger volumes falling since the crisis began there was a concern about the viability of routes between the British mainland and Northern Ireland. Stena has already furloughed or laid off hundreds of staff from its European ferry network.
Operating from the Twelve Quays terminal in Birkenhead, the service to Belfast carries mainly freight, as well as car and foot passengers. It usually operates twice a day every day except Mondays but now is down to one service a day on Saturdays and Sundays as well.
It uses two vessels, Stena Mersey and Stena Edda with the latter having just come into service as part of a multi-million pound investment into the route. Stena Mersey is due to be replaced later this year.
The £17m package is designed to protect five sea routes, and the freight they carry, between the mainland and the province, for the next two months. It is being funded by the UK Government and the Northern Ireland Executive.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said that further funding, worth tens of millions of pounds, will also be made available to support more routes across the UK, subject to discussions with operators.
He added: “Essential supplies are continuing to flow well, but operators are facing challenges as fewer people travelling means less capacity to move goods. Today’s action will help ensure we have the freight capacity we need across the UK. This funding will help ferry operators protect our supply chain and maintain the flow of critical goods across the Irish Sea and throughout the union.”
In total, the Government is supporting 31 ferry routes around the UK. In. statement, the British Ports Association said: “This is broadly speaking good news and will help keep freight moving. Critical services have been hit by the drop in passenger and non essential freight numbers because of the lockdown.
“While we welcome that this support will help keep routes viable, it will not help most ports who have significant fixed costs and have been walloped as their incomes have tumbled.
“Ports invest hundreds of millions of pounds every year in infrastructure, ensuring ships can move safely and go and that food, medicine and cargo continues to flow. These costs do not disappear when incomes drop away.
“It is critical that the Government now turns its attention to the wider maritime and logistics sector to ensure it is able to recover and continue supporting the UK economy.”