From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘Sorry – we are currently closed’

August 24th

Quelle catastrophe!  Woe are we!  What is the world coming to?  If you go to any of the 1,250 branches of McDonald’s anywhere in our still vaguely United Kingdom and ask for a milkshake of any flavour, you won’t be able to get one.  The same goes for bottled drinks.  It is darkly rumoured that not only is there a drinks drought in the McDonald’s desert but that they don’t do bagels or breakfast wraps any more either.   If you turn your back on McDonald’s in disgust and try Nando’s instead, you won’t be any luckier.  In fact, the chances are that you won’t even get through the front door.  Many Nando’s branches are closed: restaurants whose main business involves cooking chicken meat and coating it in peri-peri sauce tend to be at something of a disadvantage when their supplies of chicken dry up.  

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, is reported as telling The Independent that virtually all hospitality businesses are experiencing problems with their supply chains: ‘Our figures show that 94 per cent of hospitality businesses are experiencing problems, with about two-thirds of those saying some goods simply don’t arrive, thereby reducing the menu they can offer customers and severely undermining sales.’[1]  Nick Allen, chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association is reported in the same article as having told The Independent that Nando’s problems are just ‘the tip of the iceberg’:  ‘I think we are going to see more and more closures.  It’s certainly Brexit-related but it is also the immigration decisions our politicians are making since Brexit.’

Government apologists are, of course, still trying to blame Covid for empty shelves in supermarkets and for restaurants that are still closed after Boris Johnson’s ‘Freedom Day’, and will no doubt continue to do so until the proverbial cows eventually find their way home.   But it wasn’t Covid that resulted in Barfoots of Botley, a farming company based on England’s south coast near Bognor Regis, having to leave 750,000 courgettes to rot in their fields.[2]  And it isn’t Covid that has resulted in Tesco reporting that their shops are having to bin almost 50 tons of food every week because it is taking so long to reach their supermarkets that its shelf-life has expired before it gets anywhere near the shelves.  

The all too predictable, and widely predicted, problems are two-fold.  Firstly, a shortage of staff in the hospitality sector so dire that some restaurants haven’t been able to reopen at all, alongside a simultaneous shortage of the migrant labour from the EU that previously picked our crops for us.  Secondly, a shortage of qualified drivers to drive heavy goods vehicles which is estimated by the Road Haulage Association to amount to around 100,000 drivers.  According to a BBC report, the Association estimates that some 25,000 EU drivers who were living and working in UK have upped and taken their services elsewhere.  Instead of being able to come and go as they pleased, as they could when UK was part of the single market, the drivers are now confronted by a swamp of border bureaucracy that makes it not just too much hassle to drive in and out of UK, but also too costly: many of the drivers are paid on the strength of the distance they drive, not the time it takes, so the hold-ups at the border end up being at their cost rather than that of their employers.[3]

There is, of course, a blindingly obvious solution to the shortages of agricultural pickers, hospitality workers and heavy goods vehicle drivers: relax immigration restrictions  This the government has repeatedly been asked to do by representatives of a number of different employment sectors.  Haulage companies, for example, are reported to have been calling for a change in the rules to make it easier for drivers from abroad to get temporary visas to work here.  Their solution is for foreign drivers to be added to the ‘Shortage Occupations’ list, allowing them to qualify for a skilled worker visa.  But, equally obviously, a xenophobic government that prides itself on having definitively ‘taken control of our borders’ (give or take the up to 800 odd refugees and asylum-seekers – a.k.a. ‘illegal immigrants’ – who arrive on our beaches in small boats almost daily) is not going to want to do that, much less be seen by its equally xenophobic supporters to do that.  

So what is the solution?  For people who don’t like foreigners, the Prime Ministerial and Home Office solution to the driver shortage is obvious and eminently simple  – train and test more home-grown drivers: ‘The British people repeatedly voted to end free movement and take back control of our immigration system and employers should invest in our domestic workforce instead of relying on labour from abroad.’  In the meantime, increase drivers’ daily driving limit from nine hours to 11 hours twice a week, as long as it ‘won’t compromise driver safety.’  Which it obviously will.  The Road Haulage Association has suggested that the 2000 odd drivers from the army’s Royal Logistics Corps could be assigned to take up some of the slack but, like the extension of drivers’ hours, that would only be a temporary ‘sticking-plaster.’  It has been suggested, apparently seriously, that the shortage of staff in the meat industry might be usefully addressed by getting prisoners to do the work.  But that presumably wouldn’t work for long-haul HGV drivers.

In the meantime, let’s get on with the serious business of extending Global Britain’s trading influence around the world by appointing Lord ‘Beefy’ Botham, our Brexit-loving, six-hitting, retired England all-rounder as our UK trade ambassador to Australia.  Our esteemed (in some quarters) international trade secretary, Liz Truss, is sending Botham in to “bat for business down under”.  Having recently been elevated to the peerage as one of Johnson’s best Brexit mates, Botham is bound to be able to hit Australia’s hard-nosed and very experienced trade negotiators for six.  His appointment serves as a useful distraction from the woes of our real, rather than our fantasy, economy and will please the Tories in the shires no end.  Botham needs all his skills as a famous all-rounder: it just seems a pity that being a famous cricketer requires much more in the way of brawn than of brain.[4]