Nearly every day there’s another shortage: milkshakes in McDonald’s, chicken in Nando’s, blood test-tubes in the NHS, treatment chemicals in the sewage system – all, according to businesses, the result of a lack of heavy good vehicle (HGV) drivers to deliver products.
And yet the Government seems curiously unwilling to tackle the issue. The reason is predictable and depressing: the B-word. They know that Brexit lies at the heart of what is happening and that what’s happening must therefore be ignored.
Leaving the EU is the only constant in Boris Johnson’s administration. All other values can be swapped out, U-turned, or ignored. But Brexit is unquestionable. It cannot be shown to have negative consequences.
“There is a global shortage of labour,” the Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, said in the Commons yesterday morning. “In the US, for example, they’re hiring drivers from South Africa. So to just say this is just an issue of Brexit is completely untrue.”
Shapps is right that other countries have labour shortages. But those countries are not experiencing what we are: products going missing from the shelves, vital medical equipment running short, painful decisions about water treatment. And that’s because they didn’t upend their trading network in the middle of a pandemic.
Many HGV drivers in pre-Brexit Britain were Eastern European. They started to leave the UK shortly after the vote.
Then the pandemic hit and even more left, in order to be close to their families. While they were away, free movement ended, a new immigration system came into force and many found it hard to return.
Brexiters were comfortable with that. They had long insisted that domestic labour would make up for what we lost in foreign labour. But the pandemic put paid to that theory, too. According to EU regulations, which the UK copied and pasted into its own post-Brexit system, HGV drivers need to go through extensive training. They start with Cat C training for smaller vehicles, then move on to Cat C+E training for larger, articulated vehicles. But during Covid, the training programmes shut down, blocking an incoming stream of 30,000 drivers. There is now a nine-week wait until the first test.
Driver numbers are, therefore, being squeezed from both sides – by the pandemic and by Brexit, domestically and internationally.
The UK has a Shortage Occupation List, which is supposed to provide the Government with the flexibility to bring people into the country when they need to. But the list is restricted to Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF) Level Three. That excludes HGV drivers.
Of course, No 10 could change the rules and include them, but it appears to have no interest in doing so. Ministers presumably know that it would concede the main thrust of the Remain argument: that immigration is essential to the country and leaving the single market would have a negative impact on the British economy.
So the immigration solution to the problem has been closed off. That leaves only domestic solutions – training more drivers and getting them in a vehicle.
The Department for Transport recently started a consultation on how it might do that. It proposed that potential drivers be allowed to skip the Cat C training and move straight on to Cat C+E. This will involve a rejection of EU regulations, so Shapps, in an extraordinary bit of white-is-black chutzpah, is already gearing up to brand it a “Brexit bonus”. Sped-up training procedures will help a bit, but they won’t address a core part of the problem: that young people are reluctant to go into haulage.
The issue isn’t really pay. HGV drivers aren’t remunerated particularly badly. The average salary is £32,100 – 8 per cent higher than the national average. More experienced drivers, for instance those in charge of fuel tankers, often earn in excess of £60,000. The chief problem is the conditions, and these are much harder to address.
Many drivers enjoy their job. But there are severe downsides. Service stations typically only offer fast food, meaning your diet can become profoundly unhealthy. The toilets are usually in a terrible condition. Drivers pay to park overnight on a layby where they sleep in their lorry. The shower facilities are often so disgusting they refuse to use them. Think back to when you last saw them in a movie – Thelma & Louise, Duel, Unhinged. They’re always portrayed as a borderline psychopath: slovenly, violent and under-evolved. People in the real world often take that cue and treat them accordingly, with almost no social recognition for the pivotal role they play in society.
These things can be fixed. Germany and France, for instance, offer much better services, which are often free. But it takes time, money and consideration, all of which are in short supply.
In reality, the solution to the emergency will require a broad approach: more foreign workers, better conditions and some streamlining of the training process. The Government does not have the political will to pursue the first or the capacity for sustained effort demanded by the second. It seems willing to pursue the third because it provides a pro-Brexit narrative.
But that alone will not get goods back on shelves. The only way to do that is to be realistic about why the problem happened in the first place. And that is not possible, because it would involve admitting that Brexit has imposed a series of chronic problems. So instead we’re stuck in a make-believe world in which Brexit is perfect and the supply system degrades around us.
Ian Dunt is an i columnist and author of How To Be A Liberal, out now.