The Irish Times view on shortages in Britain: living with the costs of Brexit

The decision to limit immigration at a time of severe market shortages of drivers has escalated a squeeze into a crisis

The army has been put on standby to make petrol deliveries. Appeals have gone out to retired drivers to return to work. Five thousand short-term visas are being issued to European lorry drivers to come back and help plug the British shortage of tanker drivers. Licensing rules for tankers are being relaxed to keep them on the road. Meanwhile, members of cabinet assure the public the queues are unnecessary, the shortages the product entirely of irrational panic.

Although panic-buying, the expression rather than the cause of the United Kingdom’s latest crisis, may not be entirely rational, it was inevitable and entirely predictable. But the Boris Johnson government, as the Covid-19 pandemic and post-Brexit planning have painfully demonstrated, does not do joined-up thinking or advance planning.

Most importantly, the ministers insist repeatedly, this has nothing to do with Brexit. There are driver shortages throughout Europe too (although, strangely, no queues at the petrol pumps), shortages due to long-term challenges faced by the whole haulage industry – an ageing, low-paid workforce retiring without new blood coming through. Or so they say. Though why short-term visas should tempt such workers back to the UK for three months is not clear. Even pro-government voices point out that while the shortage of drivers may not be a uniquely British phenomenon, the government should have done more to forestall it.

True, Brexit has not solely been responsible for the current supply crisis, but its notional rationale, to limit immigration at a time of severe market shortages of drivers, has without doubt escalated a squeeze into a crisis. Looming challenges which have been repeatedly flagged over the last five years. And other sectors are manifesting similar problems with similar causes. Christmas supplies are threatened, so the government has also announced visas for 5,500 poultry workers for the same short period to reduce pressures on the food industry.

Protestations from transport secretary Grant Shapps that the Brexit policy is all about forcing reluctant employers to raise drivers’ wages and conditions in the UK stretches credulity. The hauliers are to blame, it seems, as are anyone or anything – even Covid – except the ideologically driven champions of fortress Britain.

Olaf Scholz, the leader of Germany’s Social Democrats and likely next chancellor, hit the nail on the head on Monday when asked about Britain’s crisis. “The free movement of labour is part of the European Union, and we worked very hard to convince the British not to leave the union,” he said. “Now they decided different, and I hope that they will manage the problems coming from that.”

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