Brexit’s done. It’s a mess.

Photo: Maxence Peigné

“Sorry, but we can’t serve chips, olives, bread… or any of the starters,” I was told recently in a busy, central London restaurant. “We’ve had no oil delivery,” the waitress explained. While this was an extreme example, restricted menus are becoming more frequent as restaurants face the double-whammy of limited deliveries and not enough staff.

Need an overview on the latest post-Brexit developments? Here you go:

The lack of lorry drivers may be a Europe-wide issue, but the UK, in cutting off its supply of European labour, is feeling it more than most. The last few weeks have seen panic buying of petrol over fears that a lack of haulage drivers would lead to empty pumps. This led to empty pumps.

And the result of fewer European workers is being felt by the hospitality sector as it struggles to recruit enough staff, with many a restaurant or café displaying a ‘staff wanted’ sign on its window. Service is sometimes slower than normal and tables not cleared as quickly as they should be.

And then there’s the pigs. Abattoirs are facing a shortage of trained workers to slaughter and process pig carcasses. There have already been a few hundred pigs culled and the National Pig Association has said that a mass culling “is the next stage in the process”.

This is in addition to the problem farmers are facing attracting seasonal workers to pick fruit and vegetables from the fields. The 2020 Pick for Britain campaign (a nod to World War II’s Dig for Victory and supported by HRH Prince Charles) encouraged British workers to roll up their sleeves and get harvesting. But even with a Royal endorsement and allusion to WWII, only 11% of the workforce was made up of domestic workers. Perhaps they should have included a reference to football?

There was no Pick for Britain campaign in 2021.

A gradual unravelling

The first time the shelves looked empty was mid-summer. A visit to a supermarket to buy salad was met with empty shelves, nothing leafy was to be found. Once you’re aware of a problem you start to see it everywhere — such as the creative shelf-stacking by supermarket staff who were using one or two of a product that they did have in stock to fill the shelves in place of products they didn’t. An indication that they didn’t expect those gaps to be filled any time soon.

This was shortly after July 19, dubbed “freedom day” by the tabloids, when the masks came off, and the majority of Covid restrictions were lifted. But not in Scotland. Or in Northern Ireland. Or in Wales. Or even in London (masks are required on public transport). The divisions created by Brexit have, as with so many things, been turbo-charged by Covid, with the three nations distancing themselves from many of the decisions made by Westminster. This is especially true for Scotland and Northern Ireland where the majority vote was to remain within the EU, but Wales (described as the first and last colony) has also started striking out alone. Scottish independence has reared its head again, and Brexit has put the Good Friday Agreement in jeopardy.

Queues at the petrol stations

Back in 2018, Investigate Europe looked at the haulage industry with a focus on the lot of the truck driver. The investigations title — Sweatshops on Wheels — is enough to tell you what we found, but in Brexit Britain, much of this cheap labour supply is gone.

Few would argue that what our investigation found is a business model to be championed, it’s not something that can be made overnight. Drivers need to be trained. There have to be people that want to do the job and for this, the job itself needs to be more attractive, with better facilities — showers, toilets, places to rest. This takes time. And money. And yes, the industry did have time to prepare, the referendum was in 2016, but prepare for what was never clear until the last minute. And nobody had figured a pandemic in their planning.

Clapping isn’t enough

And then there’s the NHS. We all clapped, every Thursday evening in support of the NHS staff and keyworkers getting us through the pandemic. Clapping on the steps of 10 Downing Street was Boris Johnson, who, after a close shave with Covid had put him in intensive care, would surely understand the value of the nursing profession. That value? For NHS England and Wales, 3%, and this was only after a backlash against the original 1%. An increase that would likely lead healthcare professionals to “quit for less stressful, better-paid jobs elsewhere” according to a press release from Unison, the UK’s biggest union. It seems that PM Johnson’s conference promise of high-wage economy is only when someone else is paying.

As it currently stands, reports the Guardian, one in five nursing posts on some wards in England remain unfilled, and with no pool of European workers to draw on, it could have a serious impact on patient care. There are efforts to train more nurses. 

But is it enough? And once they’re trained, can the NHS keep them? One of the nurses who looked after Boris Johnson during his time in intensive care has since quit the profession. New Zealander Jenny McGee told Nursing Times that she didn’t think nurses were “getting the respect and now pay that we deserve”.

A similar scenario can be seen playing out in care homes — another sector heavily reliant on staff from EU countries, and subject of a more recent IE investigation.

Short term fixes and sticking plasters

It’s a mess. It didn’t have to be this way, but was always going to be. It was a referendum that wasn’t supposed to happen and then wouldn’t be lost. And when it was lost, the rallying call of “Get Brexit Done” offered an easy slogan to fix everything, with no real idea of what a ‘done’ Brexit looked like. As soon as Article 50 was triggered and the clock ticking, the priority was to secure a deal, any deal, the consequences of which would have to be dealt with later. Now.

Business leaders, unions and trade bodies had warned about potential problems to supply chains, an increase in bureaucracy and staff shortages. A lorry park set up to hold trucks waiting to process paperwork for onward was jokingly nick-named the ‘Farage Garage’ in honour of Brexit’s leader, Nigel Farage, without whom it’s unlikely it would have happened.

Farage’s anti-immigration stance also influenced the type of Brexit and the introduction of a points-based system that excludes many of the workers the country had come to rely on.

So now we have the military delivering petrol and the queues are gone. For now.

We have short-term visas for HGV drivers and poultry workers to see us past Christmas and into the New Year.

Since this announcement, the hospitality sector has appealed for a temporary visa to be extended. But the government’s response when asked by the BBC was that businesses should pay more and improve conditions.

Where next?

Many of the problems now facing the UK — growing inequality, low wages, the increase in reliance on food banks — are structural and of the country’s own making.

The EU, and especially immigration, has been a convenient scapegoat for some time, and while the EU is far from perfect, the UK has always had a choice as to how policy was implemented.

And yes, Covid is a factor, in some cases exacerbating problems, and in others, delaying their manifestation so that the root causes aren’t always clear. The UK isn’t alone in a shortage of lorry drivers — the EU also has structural problems — but recruiting drivers on a temporary visa after a Brexit campaign based to a large part on anti-immigration won’t be an easy sell. The CO2 shortage from a few weeks ago that threatened fizzy drinks and supermarket packaging looks likely to soon become a Europe-wide problem. Not everything can be blamed on Brexit, but it doesn’t alter the fact that some things are worse here.

At the Conservative Party Conference last week, the PM said businesses could no longer use “immigration as an excuse for failure to invest” and talked of the country becoming a high-wage, high-skilled economy. The Adam Smith Institute, a free-market think tank, described the speech as “bombastic but vacuous and economically illiterate” and “shying away from meaningful planning reform”. Some business leaders felt they were next in line to shoulder the blame, and no mention was made of the risk of increasing inflation.

Boris Johnson once famously remarked regarding the post-Brexit relationship with the EU, that he was “pro having my cake and pro eating it”. This is now being shown for the fallacy it always was, but it was allowed to frame the Brexit debate with unbridled optimism, and the right-wing media dutifully reporting that ‘they need us more than we need them’ and ‘plucky England’ standing alone, dragging out again the WWII references.

Border control in the UK | Photo: Juliet Ferguson

Any hint of another EU having an (insert country of choice) exit, is met with glee in the manner of converts trying to recruit others to validate their life choices. Polexit is having a moment right now, but it’s just the latest in a line of many the tabloids are championing for standing up to the EU

When Brexit became the goal in itself (Getting Brexit Done), it shut down any discussion as to what this meant and any planning for the consequences. With Brexit bringing only good things, anything else was labelled ‘project fear’ and dismissed as coming from sore-losing remainers who wanted to go against the ‘will of the people’. The much-needed planning would have shown the flaws in the leave argument and may have resulted in a softer Brexit. It may not. We may still have decided what we have is the best option, but it could have been an informed decision that the country could have better prepared for.

Instead, we can only celebrate metric martyrs who are able to use pounds and ounces again (if only there was any produce to weigh) and rejoice over our ‘iconic’ blue passports that swap freedom of movement for the privilege of queuing for longer at border control.

Unbridled optimism got us where we are now, and much of what was warned about, but unheeded, is coming to pass.

Rather than blame the EU, blame Covid, blame business, the UK (England?) needs to realise you can’t have it both ways, that once it’s eaten, the cake is gone. 

That’s the thing about taking back control — there’s nobody else to blame.

This article was also published in German by our media partner, Republik