P&O Ferries freight service sailed 80% empty between Calais and Dover last week

The Spirit of Britain leaves the Port of Dover in Kent. Credit: PA

P&O Ferries insists its cross-channel freight service is on the road to recovery despite carrying an average of only 34 lorries last week. ITV News has seen traffic data for the company’s Calais to Dover route which shows that during the week beginning Monday, May 9, the Spirit of Britain left port only 19% full. The Spirit of Britain is the biggest ship in P&O’s fleet, capable of carrying up to 180 lorries. The Calais to Dover service is traditionally P&O’s most popular - and by far. On some crossings last week there were as few as 10 lorries on board. On the busiest crossing, which left France at 1.15pm on Thursday, May 12, there were 81.

“An average load factor of 19% is very low indeed,” an executive at one of P&O’s rivals told me.

“At this time of year we would be bitterly disappointed to leave port with anything less than 60% full [over the course of the week]. “I’d be surprised if P&O is suffering a customer boycott,” they added.

“Business is business, there’s a need to get goods to market. Morality is there, but it’s not usually a guiding factor when booking a ship for freight”.

In March, people protested outside Maritime House in Dover after P&O Ferries suspended sailings. Credit: PA

The unions called for a commercial and consumer boycott of P&O Ferries after the company dismissed 784 of it crew without warning 10 weeks ago and replaced them with cheaper agency staff. P&O is paying some of its crews a basic rate of pay of £3.94 an hour. At the time of the sackings, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told P&O that its reputation was “in tatters”. A survey by YouGov found the negative impact on P&O’s “brand” was “instant and dramatic”.

“P&O can’t carry on like this,” Grant Shapps told ITV News on Thursday.

The transport secretary says new legislation will help ensure the minimum wage is paid

“I can say that as a fact because we are actually changing the law to prevent them from sailing and using people who aren't being paid the minimum wage.

"So, my call to P&O is very, very simple: realise that you are going to have to turn this around, you might as well get on with doing it now, employ people at the proper rate for the job and you'll save yourselves a lot of pain and hassle and be able to sail ships that are full.''

The Spirit of Britain was initially detained by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency on April 11 after failing a safety inspection.

It was later cleared to sail by the regulator and began operating between Dover and Calais again on April 27.

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know

It was joined this week by a second ferry, the Pride of Kent. P&O won’t disclose how many lorries the ships have carried. Two more P&O ferries - The Pride of Canterbury and the Spirit of France - have yet to pass inspections and resume sailing. P&O denies that freight companies are boycotting its service.

In a statement, a spokesperson said: “Our customers are steadily returning as our ships set sail again, although it is entirely to be expected that this will not happen immediately given that two vessels are yet to return to service on the Dover-Calais route and frequencies are temporarily reduced.”