Ian McConnell: Welcome to shortages Britain: so what now Boris Johnson?

IN Boris Johnson’s Britain, it seems shortages are not only ever-more ubiquitous but also here to stay.

In recent weeks and months, we have had warnings over major shortages of lorry drivers. Supermarket giant Tesco last week highlighted this huge problem, which the Road Haulage Association says has been exacerbated by Brexit. Worries have also been voiced about labour shortages across the food supply chain.

All of this is understandably fuelling fears of shortages of food on shop shelves.

The hospitality sector has meanwhile highlighted a shortage of chefs, with Brexit also having played a significant part in that.

Meanwhile, Paul Sheerin, chief executive of industry body Scottish Engineering, has this week shone a light on the major challenge of skills shortages in this key sector. He also cited Brexit as a factor.

And Tony Danker, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, has flagged signs of “labour shortages everywhere”, highlighting this as a potential barrier to UK competitiveness over the long term.

Asked about where these shortages were being seen, in an interview with The Herald, Mr Danker replied: “You see them in obvious places like hospitality and construction. You also see them in professional services and technology and engineering. There appears to be labour shortages everywhere.”

Mr Danker highlighted the impact of people having returned home particularly to European Union countries, flagging a general belief that this was primarily the result of the coronavirus pandemic but adding that the lack of return of these workers may be Brexit-related.

While seeing a need to work out what was structural and what was cyclical in terms of skills shortages, Mr Danker said: “The labour shortage issue is real. In the long run, this is a barrier to competitiveness so we will look at it.”

Writing in The Herald on Monday, Mr Sheerin said: “Before the pandemic, skills shortages, and the need to invest in new skills, was the number one talking point and had been for some time. The trio of low historic training rates, an age profile centred above 50, and the loss of existing and future skilled resource resulting from Brexit left organisations constantly chasing the right resource to thrive.”

Lamentably, we see Brexit and the loss of existing and future skilled resource weighing down so many businesses across a raft of sectors. The woes, of course, began even before the final departure from the European single market at the end of last year, and were abundantly clear from the plunge in net migration to the UK from EU countries in the years following the Brexit vote.

This tumble in immigration from EU countries seems, sadly, to be something that was and has remained a key objective of Brexiters.

However, such people should try to put aside their ideology for a moment, step back, and take a good look at what is actually happening in this Britain about which they feel so proud.

Even in a country in which there seems to have been much misty-eyed and irrelevant nostalgia about the great British spirit and mucking in to overcome adversity, surely no one wants food shortages? And you would hope that no one wants labour shortages which will weigh heavily on the UK economy’s ability to recover from the pandemic and its future growth potential.

Mr Sheerin highlighted the loss of significant numbers of the most experienced workers in the engineering sector because of redundancies triggered by the pandemic.

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He said: “Covid has only added to that [skills] challenge with significant redundancies across the sector as employers moved to protect the business in desperately tough times. Skills lost in this way were likely to be those closest to retirement, and experience suggests that we may be unlikely to see those return as industry picks up.”

We should not underestimate the extent or nature of this problem. Experienced workers across various sectors will be crucial to economic recovery. We are in a bizarre situation. And one in which any common sense about economic matters seems conspicuous by its absence among senior members of the UK Government.

There has been much trumpeting of a trade deal with Australia with absolutely tiny overall economic benefits – an agreement which the UK farming sector has understandably warned poses a major threat.

We also had Home Secretary Priti Patel late last year celebrating a clampdown on immigration from EU countries. This clampdown, of course, could hardly have come at a worse moment for the UK. There would never have been a good moment, of course, as can be seen from the huge boost to Britain’s economy over years and decades from the previous free movement of people between the UK and EU countries. And, of course, we have also had important societal benefits from free movement.

Ms Patel tweeted in November: “After many years of campaigning, I am delighted the Immigration Bill which will end free movement on 31st December has today passed through Parliament. We are delivering on the will of the British people.”

So, is the will of the British people to have economic damage and a hit to living standards?

If anyone is any doubt about the scale of the problem, they should maybe reflect on a recent plea by Tim Martin, boss of pubs giant Wetherspoon, to make it easier for lower-skilled workers from EU countries to relocate to the UK.

Mr Martin has, of course, been one of those banging the drum loudest on Brexit in recent years.

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Returning to the Scottish engineering sector, Mr Sheerin throws into stark relief the dissonance between the worrying skills shortages and the huge numbers of employees that will be needed by the industry as it aims to play a major part in the global drive to cut carbon dioxide emissions.

Not that the impact of the post-Brexit immigration clampdown in this context looks to be worrying Ms Patel, or her Cabinet colleagues in the Johnson administration, who from an external viewpoint seem to remain fuelled by ideology.

Mr Sheerin, while awarding “full marks for effort and tenacity” to employers which continued to invest in apprenticeships amid the pandemic and went out of their way to protect existing workers on such schemes, added: “But look ahead to a recovery from Covid focused on the pressing need to reach net zero and, honestly, it’s not nearly enough, as every aspect of that challenge demands physical infrastructure intervention on a bewildering scale. If you read recently that electric vehicle ownership has entered the beginning of the exponential rise of the curve, consider then the physical installation task for charging infrastructure and then do the same for every aspect of our lives that currently carries a carbon impact.”

He noted the “scale of the challenge brings enormous opportunities for engineering and manufacturing”, and declared that a “large part of the answer lies in increasing our work-based learning focus, specifically our foundation, modern and graduate apprenticeship programmes”.

However, he also pointed out that “delivery of trained and competent employees who start today is typically four years in the making”.

There are undoubtedly major challenges here.

And the situation would surely have been a lot easier without Brexit, given the huge importance over years and decades to the Scottish engineering sector of skilled workers from various EU countries.

READ MORE: CBI director-general Tony Danker: ‘Labour shortages everywhere’ and EU exports at risk

Returning to other crucial skills shortages, the Road Haulage Association warned earlier this month that the driver shortage for heavy goods vehicles in the UK, as it had long predicted, had “now hit catastrophic proportions”.

It warned that a combination of factors, many of them long-standing, had contributed to the current situation.

The RHA observed recovery from Covid-19 is “increasing demand across supply chains” and that “the impact is already being seen with the increased opening of ‘non-essential’ retail and parts of the hospitality sector in recent weeks”.

It added: “The recovery is exacerbating the already-existing shortage. Brexit has contributed too. So has the loss of about 12 months of driver training and testing.”

The RHA last week met with roads minister Baroness Vere to “highlight the growing peril to UK supply chains from the worsening driver shortage”. It was joined at the meeting by other trade bodies and supply-chain companies from the food, retail, manufacturing, and hospitality sectors.

The RHA has said that, since the beginning of the year, about 15,000 European lorry drivers who were playing a key role have left the UK, amid Brexit-related factors.

This gives a stark indication of the scale of the problem.

So does Tesco’s revelation at the meeting with Baroness Vere that driver shortages had led to 48 tonnes of food being wasted in the last seven days. This is equivalent to around two truck-loads of food. This is understood to be short-dated food delivered late to Tesco distribution centres, by suppliers or third-party drivers.

In the wake of the meeting with Baroness Vere, RHA chief executive Richard Burnett has this week written to the Prime Minister, warning: “Prior to the pandemic, we estimated a shortage in excess of 60,000. At that time UK road transport businesses employed approximately 600,000 HGV drivers, including 60,000 from EU member states who were residing and working in the UK. Several factors have exacerbated the shortage which is now at crisis point (over 100,000) and critical supply chains are failing.”

Addressing EU exit in the letter, co-signed by a raft of senior figures in the UK freight industry including Malcolm Group chief executive Andrew Malcolm, Mr Burnett notes “the uncertainty of Brexit and future rights to live and work in the UK forced many drivers” to return to their “country of origin”. He adds: “The vast majority have not returned nor are they expected to.”

Imploring Mr Johnson to help, Mr Burnett declares: “We are urgently writing to ask for your personal intervention to help resolve the significant and rapidly deteriorating shortage of HGV drivers.”

The Boris Johnson administration seems to have an appetite for focusing on big, blustering statements about how great Britain is, while real-world problems fester.

It needs to wake up to the manifestation of the myriad shortages developing in crucial areas, and signs that the situation is only going to get worse without action.

And the Johnson Cabinet needs to pipe down on the big talk and do something meaningful to try to address the huge problems, some of which, notably those which are Brexit-related, are of its own making.

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992