The European Union was forced to intervene this week to free up the flow of essential goods as measures by member states to restrict the cross-border movement of people in the battle against coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) led to freight bottlenecks at key points.
Traffic jams of up to 30 miles were reported at some Germany-Poland crossings last week, and lengthy delays developed at numerous other points as the borders were closed on March 17, preventing the delivery of urgently needed medical equipment to heavily affected areas, such as northern Italy.
In response, the European Commission issued guidelines to protect health while keeping goods moving and essential services available, calling for member states to establish priority “green lanes” by which border crossings can be made in under 15 minutes.
EC President Ursula von der Leyen had strong words for member states on the need for a coordinated response to the coronavirus.
“A crisis without borders cannot be resolved by putting barriers between us. And yet, this is exactly the first reflex that many European countries had,” she said Thursday in an address to the European Parliament in Brussels. “This simply makes no sense because there is not one single member state that can meet its own needs when it comes to vital medical supplies and equipment.”
With the scale of the outbreak stretching the health care systems of some countries to the breaking point, von der Leyen said the border delays were creating a critical shortage of medical supplies.
“What we saw was crucial equipment stuck in bottlenecks or at borders for days, and this is why we had to take matters into our own hands as far as we could to release these blockades,” she said.
Border control coordination concerns
But the EC’s response did not come quick enough to avoid a call by organizations representing forwarders, rail freight, truckers, ports, and terminals in Europe that remain concerned over a lack of coordination between member states.
Despite the closing of retail stores across Europe that has put inventory orders on hold and sent most of the workforce home, demand is soaring for essential goods, mainly medical equipment, medicines, and food, most of which require cross-border shipping.
The International Federation of Freight Forwarders Associations (FIATA) urged governments to keep cross-border corridors open and provide clearance for both goods and the delivery drivers.
“The most immediate concern for the road transport sector is to maintain supply chains, especially for essentials such as food and medical items, in the safest way possible for transport workers and citizens and respecting the latest relevant government guidelines,” Stéphane Graber, FIATA director general, said in a statement.
The FIATA statement said that as governments struggled to contain COVID-19, logistics remained one of the greatest assets of economies with a highly developed road or rail infrastructure. The association said transport arrangements were key to the delivery of not only medical support and other essentials, but also to trade between interdependent economies.
The European Rail Freight Association (ERFA) said the availability of goods could only be maintained with unobstructed transport and predictable and coordinated capacity management. ERFA president Dirk Stahl, also the CEO of rail operator BLS Cargo, said national authorities needed to coordinate to ensure rail capacity along established priority “green lanes” remained open around the clock.
In a similar vein, the European Sea Ports Organization (ESPO) emphasized the essential role transport was playing in addressing the coronavirus.
“Transport and logistics play a crucial role in the supply of essential goods in this critical period,” said Isabelle Ryckbost, ESPO secretary general. “To ensure that transport can continue to keep us going, the free flow of goods between member states must be guaranteed.”