British travellers have been warned to expect extensive delays this Easter as staff shortages, engineering work and seized ferries affect the industry just as demand for holidays soars.

Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, said on Wednesday that he expected this weekend to be “extremely busy” as people take advantage of relaxed Covid travel restrictions to travel.

The four-day weekend marks the first public holidays since all the UK’s Covid border restrictions were lifted last month, and the start of the peak spring and summer season.

But there is also the likelihood of significant delays and disruption, both this weekend and for weeks to come, as the rapid rebound in demand for travel has come with many businesses still understaffed from the height of the pandemic, and a new wave of Covid-19 infections causing further labour shortages.

“For the very first time . . . Brits are able to travel much more freely than other nations because we don’t have Covid restrictions now,” Shapps told BBC Radio.

Drivers have been warned to expect record traffic, while disruption is also expected on the railways, at airports and English Channel ports.

Some of the worst problems in recent weeks have come at airports, where management have struggled to recruit enough staff to handle the surge in passengers.

Manchester airport, which has recently seen huge queues at busy times, has told passengers to arrive three hours before their flights, and to expect queues of up to 90 minutes at security.

EasyJet and British Airways have also cancelled hundreds of flights between them in recent weeks due to staff shortages.

More than 9,000 flights are scheduled to take off from UK airports between April 15 and April 18, nearly 80 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, according to data provider Cirium.

Tui, Europe’s largest holiday company, said that it had sent warning emails to customers travelling from Manchester, Bristol and Birmingham, telling them to check in at least an hour earlier than usual for short and long-haul flights. Some customers, seeing headlines about the travel chaos at airports, had turned up six hours early, it said.

The company has not cancelled any flights but said that some were being delayed due to fuel protesters preventing supplies reaching airports and finding standby crew to fill in for Covid absences.

Flight loads for flights leaving the UK were 98 per cent, Tui said, and bookings were higher than for Easter 2019.

Shapps said he was “very concerned” that airports, airlines and ports “ensure they get back to strength and quickly” after firing tens of thousands of staff during the pandemic.

“We had been warning them for a long time they would need to gear up again. I am very keen to ensure they do everything possible to manage a very busy weekend,” he said.

Airlines and airports are racing to recruit thousands of staff, but have warned that it is taking much longer than usual for staff to go through government-required background checks.

Shapps said he expected particular disruption at the port of Dover, “no thanks” to P&O Ferries, which has been unable to sail between Dover and Calais for nearly a month after pausing operations in March to sack its crews and replace them with cheaper agency workers.

P&O had hoped to resume a service in time for the Easter weekend, but maritime inspectors this week detained a second of the two ferries earmarked to return to the Dover-Calais route. Both vessels are now impounded, with no new inspections due.

Drivers planning to cross the Channel have been warned by National Highways, which manages England’s major roads, to prepare for prolonged delays, while trade body Logistics UK said this week that hundreds of lorry drivers waiting to cross to the continent had been stuck without access to basic services, food and water.

“We need to see a rapid reinstatement of full ferry capacity before the weekend,” the group said.

Meanwhile, motorists across the UK have been warned to prepare for the worst Easter bank holiday traffic on record by the RAC motoring group.

Drivers are planning an estimated 21.5mn leisure journeys by car across the weekend, the company said, the most since it started tracking the data in 2014.

Delays caused by the pent-up demand for travel are expected to be exacerbated by planned engineering work on parts of the rail network, which will drive more people into their cars.

“It’s very possible this weekend could turn out to be one of the busiest for leisure journeys for many years,” said Rod Dennis, of the RAC.

Network Rail, the UK railway infrastructure owner, is carrying out 530 upgrade projects over Easter, and has advised football fans travelling from north-west England to London for the football FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Manchester City not to go by train.

“Unfortunately, this year there is a clash between our . . . upgrades and the FA Cup semi-finals, and regrettably these works can’t be deferred as it would waste millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money and cause further unnecessary disruption to passengers,” said Dave Penney, a Network Rail executive.

Staff absences because of Covid could also add to the disruption.

Most train operators have reported a good service this week, and industry groups said they do not expect widespread trouble from sickness. But Transpennine Express and Greater Anglia have both introduced amended timetables to help them deal with staff absences.

Additional reporting by Jennifer Williams in Manchester

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