When our roads did not become giant, sprawling lorry parks in the first few months of this year, the county breathed a sigh of relief. Perhaps Brexit, that most contentious of modern day issues, was not going to be as catastrophic as the naysayers had predicted.
But over the course of the year, a crisis, fuelled by the decision to leave the European Union, has been steadily, stealthily, stretching its tentacles around many of the services and products we expect and rely on.
From beer running short in pubs to cafés and restaurants struggling to find the staff needed to operate, the impact of an exodus of workers over the last 18 months has been hugely damaging; its impact spanning different sectors.
Brexit, of course, has been the ultimate political football; dividing the population amid claims and counter-claims of its likely impact. Only a global pandemic was able to dethrone it from the being the nation’s talking point of choice.
Yet as we take tentative steps away from the restrictions the virus brought to our lives, the shadow of our split from the EU is now casting a gloom. Covid and Brexit are proving a debilitating toxic cocktail.
Both have contributed to vacancies hitting an all time high – just as firms are looking to bounce back after the ravages of the last 18 months.
“The bottom line is,” explains the boss of Folkestone-based job agency Recruitment Solutions Joe Brady, “there are more vacancies and less candidates. I’ve never known anything quite like it, to be honest, and Brexit is playing its part in that.”
“I don’t think we can pin in all on to Brexit,” admits Lesley Whybrow, a Remain-supporting Green councillor on Folkestone & Hythe District Council, “but it is much worse as a result.
“We’ve seen a lot of hospitality vacancies here; a clear indication of a shortage of staff
“I think it was totally foreseeable – it could have been avoided.”
Folkestone provides a snapshot of one town’s struggles against the challenges faced by many not just in Kent, but across the country right now.
The town’s history has been intrinsically linked to its proximity to the Continent. Once a busy cross-Channel port, home to ferries, hovercraft and catamarans; now it is better known for the entry and exit point for the Channel Tunnel in neighbouring Cheriton.
Today, it is using art and an exciting range of food and drink outlets to woo visitors – with some considerable success.
But take a quick look at the major job websites and the dozens of roles available at bars, restaurants and hotels paint a picture. Even the likes of its much-lauded Rocksalt eatery are on the hunt for new recruits.
A shortage of drivers has already caused problems for those living and visiting the town.
A pilot park and ride bus scheme in Cheriton to ferry visitors to Folkestone harbour had to be suspended due to a lack of drivers, with bus company Stagecoach deploying its workforce to work on the key town routes instead.
While bin collections have been disrupted due to the driver issue – a problem compounded by the so-called ‘Pingdemic’.
Much has been written about the impact of the shortages due to the HGV driver crisis – something only too visible with empty shelves on our supermarkets as supply chains are hit. But the impacts are wide and the effects likely to be long-lasting.
A major employer in Folkestone is plant-based firm Plamil.
Explains its managing director, Adrian Ling: “The supply chains are hugely complex. For us, we’re a manufacturing company, we make chocolate. We’re purchasing 300 individual items which go into another 100-150 items we’re distributing. I’ve heard there’s maybe a 1-2% hiccup in supplies. Well that’s maybe six items. But where we have our production schedules, which are all complicated, if one item doesn’t turn up that can have a huge impact on everything we make.
“We started to see it in March and April and it’s been getting worse ever since.
“It’s a combination of Brexit, Covid and, I’d say, the mishandling of the management of those. We will see this as a growing problem until some of these issues are sorted out.”
And he ominously warns: “If people think it won’t affect them, it will.”
He points to the problems having a knock-on effect which could see his firm struggle to get Easter eggs into stores in time for next year.
David Wells, chief executive of Tunbridge Wells-based Logistics UK, formerly known as the Freight Transport Association, explains: “The current shortfall of around 90,000 HGV drivers is placing unsustainable pressure on retailers and their supply chains. While there was a shortage of HGV drivers prior to the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit, these two events have exacerbated the situation; the pandemic halted driver training and testing for more than 12 months, while an estimated 14,000 EU drivers returned home during the pandemic and following the end of the transition period.”
Adds South East area manager for the Road Haulage Association, Graham Pask: “It’s a perfect storm of issues. We’ve had an on-going issue of a lot of drivers ageing and more coming off the end of the chain than coming on at the start.
“Because of Brexit, a lot of the European drivers went home. We have asked the government, for the short term, that they be put on the essential workers list.”
So far, at least, the call has been resisted; but with taxi drivers and coach companies also voicing concerns, the need to act may become too loud to ignore.
Even those in the town expecting their flu jabs will feel the impact with delays to the vaccines arriving due to the freight problems.
The hospitality industry has been hit by the staffing crisis more than most. With employees fleeing a sector hit so hard by the lockdowns in search of more job security, the situation was intensified by the departure of many workers from the EU. The costs are being felt around the business – not just struggles to recruit.
Explains Neil Lomas, manager of the Best Western Clifton Hotel in the town: “The laundry company we use had to increase salaries to get staff to get the deliveries to us. That’s a 13% increase for me and, on a busy month, an extra £1,000. That’s £12,000 additional cost a year for nothing at all. And that’s just one supplier.”
The staycation trend may have helped the bottom line, but it’s easy to see how the summer revenues can easily be consumed on rising essential costs.
Yet despite the myriad of challenges, there are many who believe Brexit will deliver on all its supporters wildest dreams…eventually.
Terence Mullard is a Ukip councillor on Folkestone council.
He says: “If you are a genuine Brexit supporter it was always said there would be a bumpy ride on the way and yes, we’re going through that now. But ‘true Brexit’ says Britain will look after itself, we will create our own lorry drivers.
“Brexit is causing some teething problems, which everyone knew from the start, but Britain’s got to pull its finger out pretty fast and train up more people.
“It’s a complex system – yes you can blame Brexit a bit. Has it changed my mind? No. Because we’ll come out the other side and it will be beautiful, sunny and shiny.”
Remember that if we’re faced with empty shelves this Christmas.