Last week, as I headed into Santander in Northern Spain to take a ferry to England, vehicles with British registration plates were patiently queuing up at petrol stations, topping up with fuel before disembarking the next day at Plymouth and heading off in a land that by all accounts was running scare of the commodity. I filled up too.
At the port in Plymouth as the rain fell heavily, long lines formed as passports were checked — then longer lines for those who were carrying goods back to the United Kingdom. There was no free movement. And as I drove north towards Manchester, electronic motorway signs brought the fuel scarcity to reality, warning that service stations were dry or had no diesel fuel for heavy goods vehicles (HGV).
Stopping for a motorway service station coffee, some other realities of this post-Brexit, post-Covid Britain were evident too. Signs offered immediate work for HGV drivers, with good pay, regular hours and no overnight or weekend working. And some of the fast food counters that make up the food offerings on British motorways were either fully closed or urgently seeking staff to flip burgers, clean tables and take out the rubbish.
As of September, according to the UK governments own statistics, the unemployment rate is at 4.6 per cent. What happens after September is uncertain, given that the government’s furlough scheme which paid a percentage of workers’ salaries during the coronavirus, is ending. About a million workers had some 20 per cent of their salaries paid under the scheme when it ended on Sept 30.
Also ending last week was a £20-a-week increase in universal credit, the government’s social benefits’ programme, brought in to help people at the start of the pandemic. Up and down the UK, more than 5.8 million receive universal credit, and 40 per cent of those are classed as being in employment — mostly minimum wage jobs, like at those fast food counters at the like.
The government says that in this post-Brexit, post-Covid Britain, that £20 they are taking away can instead be made up by higher wages and working more.
If you could get petrol, it was at the £1.35 (Dh6.73) a litre and above range for regular — the highest price in the UK for some five years.
As I sat in traffic jams on the M4, M5 and M6 — it took eight hours to drive 900 kms across Spain, six hours to drive 300 kms across England — I listened to talk radio stations, always a good barometer of the public mood anywhere anytime. Caller after caller complained about rising electricity and natural gas prices. In this post-Brexit, post-Covid Britain, eight natural gas suppliers had gone bust because they couldn’t survive the squeeze between the price demanded by the producers of gas and the government-imposed cap on what they can charge consumers. One-in-five customers who rely on natural gas to heat their water and keep their houses warm this winter have lost their suppliers and are being moved to bigger suppliers — but all British consumers will face much higher fuel bills from now on.
Callers complained too about the impending cut to universal credit, that even with the extra £20 they could hardly make ends meet and had no idea what would happen when it was taken away — just as prices were going up.
That shortage of HGV drivers is affecting everything. Paying more for new drivers — if companies can hire them or if the few government licensing centres can get them approved anyway — means transport costs are increased. Higher fuel will do that anyway.
Grocery stores are having difficulty keeping all of their shelves full. There are fewer workers to fill those shelves, and items that used to move freely from the rest of Europe, before Brexit, before Covid, aren’t being shipper. Paperwork, like at Plymouth or ports up and down Britain, where there used to be free movement, is keeping those shelves empty.
Before Brexit, before Covid, a Dutch lorry driver heading to the UK with a trailer of flowers might drop it at Covent Garden in London, pick up a trailer of meat and drive it north to Birmingham, drop it and pick up a trailer of chocolate and drive it to Liverpool, then head back to Eindhoven with a trailer of parts of electrical components. That doesn’t happen now.
Now there is a “supply chain crisis”.
Those long lines of drivers waiting for fuel. Those, in the government’s words, are symptomatic of a supply chain crisis that is affecting all of Europe. I’ll take that with a grain of salt. There was no shortage of goods in Spain where I spent the summer, and the only lines at petrol stations there were those of UK drivers filling up before the ferry from Santander.
In the government’s view, these problems are all signs of the great British economy awakening from the hibernation brought on by Covid.
In this post-Brexit, post-Covid Britain, UK workers will be expected to do more, produce more and earn higher pay. That’s the macroeconomic theory.
The microeconomic practice is that everyone will be paying more in taxes — national insurance premiums have been hiked to pay for social care costs, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer isn’t ruling our further tax increases to balance books. Everyone will be paying more for their groceries — according to the government’s own statistics agency, prices increased by 4 per cent over the summer, the highest increase in decades. Everyone will be paying more for electricity and natural gas.
Right now, in this post-Brexit, post-Covid Britain, crops were left to rot in the fields because there weren’t enough non-British workers to process them. British farmers are now beginning to kill animals because they can’t afford to keep them and there aren’t enough non-British workers to process them in food plants. And even if there were, there are enough drivers to haul the meat to market.
In this post-Brexit, post-Covid Britain, “made glorious by the sun of York” as Shakespeare wrote four centuries ago, “now is the winter of our discontent”.