P&O Ferries sacked 800 sailors with immediate effect on Thursday, saying that in its current state the company is “not a viable business”.

The announcement came after the ferry operator had earlier taken the extraordinary step of suspending all services and ordering its ships back to port.

P&O, owned by Dubai-based DP World, had said it was “not going into liquidation” before releasing a statement outlining its reason for the “very difficult but necessary decision” to make sweeping job cuts.

“We have made a £100mn loss year on year, which has been covered by our parent DP World,” the company said. “This is not sustainable. Our survival is dependent on making swift and significant changes now. Without these changes there is no future for P&O Ferries.”

It said the 800 seafarers would be compensated for the short notice for job losses.

Nautilus, the seafarers’ trade union, said there had been no consultation or notice given to staff. The RMT union said it had instructed crew to stay on board the ferries and was concerned that British crew could be replaced by “foreign labour”.

Downing Street said that transport officials were in urgent discussions with P&O to address the “live situation”. Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, is expected to give a statement later on Thursday.

Karl Turner, the Labour MP for Hull East, said there were two P&O ships at the terminal in his constituency where “foreign crew” were waiting to board P&O’s Pride of Hull ferry to take over from the sacked British sailors.

The Pride of Rotterdam is already mostly crewed by foreign workers, but the Pride of Hull still had about 80 British staff as of Wednesday — including 57 RMT members.

P&O Ferries operates on the busy passenger and freight Dover to Calais route, as well as services between the British mainland and Ireland, Northern Ireland and Holland.

Passengers at Dover and Calais with bookings on Thursday morning sailings were being told to head to rival DFDS to travel.

The UK government said the “Kent Resilience Forum” was also holding a meeting on Thursday amid concerns about the knock-on effect on the transport system.

Nautilus said P&O’s actions were “nothing short of scandalous” and a “betrayal to British workers”.

DP World, a Dubai-based container and logistics group, bought P&O Ferries for £322mn in 2019, and fired 1,100 workers early in 2020 as the pandemic struck.

The company faced criticism from unions and politicians in the UK for pushing ahead with a planned $330mn dividend payout as it laid off staff and took government funding to keep freight services running.

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