At gas stations, there’s fuel rationing and hours-long lineups. At the supermarket, there’s sometimes no milk or meat, and warnings that Christmas turkeys may be unavailable – along with Christmas trees and many popular toys. Building materials are so scarce that construction sites have shut down. With fuel for heating and electricity jeopardized, a cabinet minister warned last week that “This is going to be a really difficult winter for people.”
Last time Britain faced supply shortages and rationing, my grandparents were so appalled by it that they emigrated to Canada. That was the 1940s, though, and the causes were as visible as the fresh bomb craters.
This time, there’s no actual scarcity. No other European country has gas-station lineups or food shortages or warnings about a straitened winter. British milk is being produced in great volumes, but dairies have been ordered to dump it. The toys and trees and turkeys are all there, in warehouses and fields, unable to budge.
This shortage is not of goods or resources. It’s a shortage of people. Specifically, the people who used to cross the English Channel to drive trucks, harvest crops, and design bond-trading platforms. It’s a shortfall that’s been fully predicted and understood and analyzed for at least five years. There were dozens of major studies from 2015 to 2020 pointing out that Britain is essentially run by workers from across the Channel. People were warned.
But people voted for this crisis.
Before the 2016 Brexit referendum, there were an estimated 2.9 million citizens of other European Union countries living in Britain. They weren’t there for the weather or the food. Almost all were fully employed, in sectors – like truck driving – that had tapped out the British labour force. Britain enjoyed, and still enjoys, high employment levels, and big labour shortages.
The Brexit vote was overwhelmingly a vote not against the EU in general, but against just one of its “four freedoms” – the free movement of people. An analysis of major surveys conducted in 2016 showed that more than 70 per cent of those voting “Leave” did so primarily because they wanted to end immigration.
As a consequence, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s awkward efforts to forge a post-Brexit deal with the EU are not even contemplating a cross-border labour-mobility pact – even though that’s the one aspect of the EU relationship that Britain relied upon.
Mr. Johnson has scrambled this week to blame the crisis on mysterious global market forces and to get emergency short-term visas that would allow European truck drivers to cross the channel. But everybody knows that this is a purely British problem, and is not just about truck drivers.
Those European drivers have become the centre of policy attention because their effects are so immediate – according to their industry, Britain has been at least 100,000 drivers short of the approximately 600,000 it needs every day to keep the shelves stocked, the petroleum moving and the economy ticking over.
It isn’t just supposedly low-skilled trades such as driving and harvesting that have been devastated by the loss of immigrants. Nursing has, too – a huge proportion of nurses (including the one who delivered our daughter in a London hospital) came to Britain from abroad. It is so acute that a fifth of British cancer patients are now facing serious treatment delays because there are no nurses to attend to them. So serious is the shortage of staff for seniors’ homes, already devastated by the pandemic, that the industry is preparing to call for as many as 100,000 volunteers to keep the elderly alive.
Middle-class Britons who voted for Brexit because they didn’t like the thought of more immigrants competing for jobs are discovering now just how dependent they were on those immigrants. It’s become largely impossible to get your cat or dog treated, even in an emergency, because the departure of the huge proportion of European veterinarians means that clinics are refusing to take on new pets. Forget finding someone to clean your house or take care of your kids or fix your brickwork – those jobs were all done by Poles and Italians and Romanians, and they’re staying away.
There is not, as Brexit proponents claimed for years, an untapped British labour force waiting in the wings. There’s a vanishingly low unemployment rate; the supermarket chains have reportedly tried to entice British drivers with salaries of 70,000 pounds a year, with little luck.
Mr. Johnson, elected to be the executor of a merciless “hard Brexit” that would reward the hopes of those who chose to leave the EU because they felt it was putting too many foreigners on their soil, is now on a round-the-clock mission to try to find ways to entice more foreigners into Britain.
You can imagine, as he scrambles to attract hundreds of thousands of medical workers from abroad, he’s hoping they won’t notice that the wounds are all self-inflicted.
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