Shortages? I see no shortages

by Ann Higgins

Like Nelson putting the telescope to his blind eye at the battle of Trafalgar, our government and its supporters are still in denial about the growing supply-side crisis in all sectors of the UK economy. From food stuffs to glass phials for blood and flu jabs, and from HGV drivers to fruit and veg pickers and carers, there are unexpected and increasing shortages in the bagging area, but the UK government seems unconcerned almost to a state of indifference.

No-one is saying this is entirely down to Brexit, far from it. There are obviously other factors like covid in play of course. But absent evidence of similar widespread shortages in the rest of the world, especially the EU, it’s difficult to find another explanation, particularly as creating a lower number of immigrant workers was exactly what this version of Brexit was designed to do. Ending the Single Market and thus robbing the UK of its access to a mobile and flexible workforce is exactly what the advocates of the harder forms of Brexit had in mind. The assumption seems to have been (and may still be) that there is enough slack in the UK labour market to fill in the gaps. But as we are seeing with the shortage of HGV drivers, there is not a huge untapped well of trained and qualified drivers just waiting for the right offer before they return from early retirement or whatever occupation they have been doing in the meantime. It’s a hard and pretty thankless job and so far the pay rises and golden handshakes on offer haven’t done the trick. Nor are the vacancies likely to be filled by the newly qualified as training takes months and is very costly. And even ignoring visa requirements, EU drivers have no incentive to return here as there is also a shortage, though not as bad, in the EU and going home afterwards is a lot easier.

Although the crisis seems to be widening, pleas from various business leaders for temporary visas to be granted have fallen on deaf ears, particularly affecting the health sector with requests going out to doctors to limit blood tests to those that are essential (prompting one response that they don’t order unnecessary ones) and now we hear the news that the delivery of ‘flu jabs may be delayed. Covid and ‘flu together? With many hospitals at maximum capacity already, that is a truly frightening prospect.

And now comes news from the care sector that care workers prefer the higher pay and better hours offered by Amazon and other employers rather than working long hours for poor pay in care homes, with the added disadvantage, as some see it, of mandatory vaccinations by November. Some are even migrating to the NHS, where there is better pay and covid vaccinations are not yet mandatory, and shortages of up to 170,000 workers are anticipated by Christmas.

Where is the Tory government in all this? As revealed by the Sustain blog, back in 2019 the government made it clear in a rare act of prescience that the main responsibility for securing our food supply in an emergency lay with the food industry. Is this an indication that against all the odds they predicted the very crisis that their supporters are denying exists? Or were they watching their own backs just in case? Whichever it is, relying on this government to get us out of the hole they have dug and keep making deeper will be a waste of time. We are on our own.