The hard reality of Brexit is hitting Britain. It's costing everyone but Boris Johnson
The hard reality of Brexit i...
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The hard reality of Brexit is hitting Britain. It's costing everyone but Boris Johnson

14 September 2021
4 min.
The hard reality of Brexit is hitting Britain. It's costing everyone but Boris Johnson

From one end of the supply chain to the other, the UK's food producers have endured a summer of trouble.

"The cold stores didn't have enough space to hold our crops, so we had to throw away a week's worth of production," explains Iain Brown, vice chairman of East Scotland Growers (ESG). "And we've not had enough workers to harvest our vegetable crops, meaning they are going to waste."

While food shortages have been common in many countries over the course of the pandemic, Brown believes that one issue unique to the UK is making life extra painful: Brexit.
According to Brown, the two essential prongs of production -- first, getting fresh food out of the ground, and then distributing it onto supermarket shelves -- are both taking a hit due to a lack of workers.

First, a lack of truck drivers, who take fresh items like cauliflowers to and from freezing facilities, meant that the ESG cooperative at one stage had to throw away a week's worth of production, at an estimated cost of £1 million ($1.4 million).

Second, Brown says that many of the seasonal workers, who would come from countries like Romania and Bulgaria for a few months to harvest vegetables, are now in short supply.

"Some didn't come because the Covid regulations make it too hard; some came, made a lot of money, and went home earlier than planned." This, Brown says, meant about 10-15% of his crop went to waste, costing around £200,000 ($277,000).

It seems that the consequences of Brexit are finally being felt up and down the UK. And far from the sunlit uplands promised by members of Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government, a shortage of European workers in these vital areas means financial losses for businesses and empty shelves as the UK hurtles towards Christmas.

The shortage of truck drivers is probably the most immediate issue.

The current driver shortage is estimated to be between 90,000 to 120,000, according to a spokesperson for Logistics UK. While Brexit is not entirely to blame, the fact that the UK no longer has easy access to European drivers has created a headache for the industry.

These people cannot simply be replaced by British workers. Besides the fact it can take up to nine months to qualify as a driver and cost up to £5,000 ($6,940) according to Logistics UK, Brits are not lining up to take these jobs.

"We have an aging workforce in the UK and the image of working conditions for lorry [truck] drivers -- unsafe parking spaces or places to rest up -- has made it unattractive for lots of younger people," a spokesperson for Logistics UK told CNN Business.

This creates a hard choice for companies: What goods do you prioritize? If you have only one truck leaving your warehouse that day, you are probably going to prioritize perishables over things like bottled water. In the long run, this means less consumer choice and the possibility of consumer panic, as was seen in 2020 when Britain ran short on supplies of toilet paper.

For some idea of how serious a problem is, the bosses of Britain's biggest supermarkets have described the food shortages as unprecedented -- one told The Times newspaper they were "at a worse level than at any time I have seen" -- and warned that shelves could be bare at Christmas due to a lack of drivers.

These shortages should be a gift for Johnson's political opponents, who can say that his claims of having an "oven ready" Brexit deal in 2019 -- the promise on which he won a general election -- were false.

The government, critics say, failed to adequately prepare for the inevitable consequences of Brexit and mitigate its initial impact.

UK GDP growth ground to a near halt in July, according the Office for National Statistics, in part because of supply chain issues and worker shortages. Britain's economy remains 2.1% smaller than before the pandemic, and some economists think the difference won't be made up until the second quarter of next year.

"Throughout the whole Brexit process the government found its efforts to get business and people prepared for the inevitable upheaval undermined by its need to present Brexit as something that would be positive for the UK and the economy," says Sam Lowe, a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform. "This led to confusing radio adverts that didn't even mention the word Brexit, delayed guidance, and last-minute changes of heart."

Worse, Johnson's government is now in the strange position of refusing to implement a key part of the deal it once hailed as a great success.

The UK was supposed to fully enforce a mechanism called the Northern Ireland Protocol later this year. The Protocol was agreed between the UK and EU to reflect the special status of Northern Ireland: Out of the EU, along with the rest of the UK, but sharing a soft land border with the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state.


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