The pandemic disrupted supply chains, but that issue is being used as political camouflage to disguise the failings of Brexit
Last modified on Wed 25 Aug 2021 14.17 EDT
Most of the system that puts food on the 21st-century table is a mystery to the consumer, who is usually happy in ignorance. If the complex logistics – picking, processing, packing, and distributing – make headlines it is because something has gone wrong.
Currently, two very big things have gone wrong, leading to gaps on supermarket shelves. One is the pandemic, which has slowed the movement of goods and people across borders, while raising shipping costs. Any broken link in global supply chains causes a cascade of disruption which affects many countries. But Britain has a second, aggravating condition to contend with – Brexit.
Being outside the EU single market and customs union imposes bureaucracy and friction at borders that British businesses did not previously face. Ending freedom of movement for EU nationals has drained the labour pool from which many industries recruited. Without agricultural workers, food rots before it can get to market. Without hauliers, goods sit unshipped in depots.
This was all predictable, and predicted. Ending free-flowing EU migration was an advertised benefit of Brexit. The theory was that foreigners were taking jobs from British-born workers or depressing their wages. The gaps should, in that view, now be filled with eager locals. One problem, as businesses warned well in advance, is that migrants were not generally working in dream jobs, surrounded by unemployment. The tasks they did, and the conditions under which they worked, might not appeal to British workers. There might not be slack in the labour market to be taken up. In some fields – haulage, for example – there are also limits to how quickly new recruits can be trained and licensed.
Pay is going up in some sectors, but not by much, and it is too early to identify a sustainable boost to workers’ power in negotiation with bosses. One-off bonuses to lorry drivers do not yet presage that overdue rebalancing of industrial relations. Low pay, antisocial hours and insecure contracts are entrenched features of Britain’s economy that cannot be upgraded overnight. It is a model that relies on a workforce that is insecure and financially precarious – conditions that generated the craving for control that was so deftly exploited by the leave campaign.
That same campaign belittled or flatly denied the benefits of single market membership. The value of frictionless borders with the continent should now be self-evident. It will become clearer still when grace periods and waivers expire and another layer of bureaucracy is applied to imports from the EU.
The pandemic functions as political camouflage for Brexit-related problems. The two issues are interlinked and ministers steeped in Eurosceptic mythology are motivated to highlight the Covid dimension. But the excuses will run out before any upside to life outside the single market materialises. It is still unclear what that bounty might be.
Businesses also have incentives to downplay logistics problems. Supermarkets do not want to trigger panic buying and suppliers do not want to advertise their commercial vulnerabilities. But sparsely stocked shelves and unfilled orders cannot be hidden from consumers, nor will it be feasible for the government to pretend that they are accidents of nature. Covid is part of the story but, as so often, the pandemic has exposed structural weaknesses in Britain’s society and economy. Some of those flaws have developed over generations. But not the hard Brexit that is sabotaging Britain’s recovery. That was a choice, sold energetically – and dishonestly – to the public by the current prime minister. The financial costs might be borne by consumers and businesses, but the blame belongs to Boris Johnson.
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