Today
Mon 25 October 2021

With supply chain problems being blamed on workers self-isolating, Caolan Robertson reports on what business owners, managers and labourers have been telling him across the country about the consequences of Brexit

As the images of empty supermarket shelves across Britain skyrocket, elements of the right-wing media have taken to blaming the so-called ‘pingdemic’.

The narrative emerging is that supply and labour shortages – which have previously been blamed on Brexit – are instead the result of an overzealous ‘Test and Trace’ system; a hallmark of our illiberal, authoritarian response to the Coronavirus pandemic and nothing to do with Britain’s departure from the EU.

The reality is very different.

For the past month, I’ve travelled the length and breadth of the UK – more than 1,500 miles in total – hearing first-hand the stories of the havoc that has been wreaked on leave and remain voters alike, as part of an ongoing Byline TV series about the repercussions of Brexit for farmers, fishermen, hauliers and retailers.

At first, individual business owners spoke of facing issues with exporting due to the paperwork created overnight by the UK’s change in customs status or struggling to find a market within the UK to make up for lost trade to the EU. Lorry drivers and shipping managers began to warn that we would see empty supermarket shelves because of a disastrous mix of new customs regulations and a lack of drivers as EU workers left the UK.

At a truck stop just off the M4, I spoke to Laura Salt, operations manager at Steve Fellows Road Haulage Service, a Staffordshire logistics firm that supplies several UK supermarkets. “It’s been a nightmare to get drivers,” she said, “we’ve had a lot of European drivers go back due to paperwork, it’s just a lot easier to go back. It’s causing chaos. Recently we’ve been having to say that we can’t cover the runs, can’t make the delivery. Before Brexit, it would never have happened.”

New customs and travel rules have exacerbated the pressure on staff rotas, with international drivers taken out of action by vastly increased waits at customs.

“Where a a job used to turn around in five days, it’s now becoming over a week,” she added. “You never know how long it’s going to take a shipment just to clear customs… the record is five days.”

Steve Burgess, a truck driver from Kent, compared the pre-Brexit customs process to the “long headache” drivers like him are now facing.

“Before Brexit, when a trailer came off the ferry we could pick it up and go straight away,” he told Byline TV. “Now, it has to come off the ferry and then await customs clearance. I’ve been sat there for three hours waiting, some of my colleagues have lost a whole day.” He pointed out that all the extra hours add up and result in expensive delays at the other end of the supply chain.

Shane Brennan, CEO of The Cold Chain Federation in Reading, leads the representative membership organisation for companies that store temperature-controlled food and other goods in the UK. He spends the majority of his time dealing with immediate crises, particularly around Brexit. 

“I think businesses across the supply chain are frustrated that the evidence is that there hasn’t been a clear plan for how to maintain supplies through what has been a chaotic exit of the EU,” he said – placing the blame squarely on Brexit.

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This was a sentiment echoed by Graham Pask, south-east manager for the Road Haulage Association. “Nobody, not even the Government, fully understood the costs involved with exporting and importing from Europe,” he said.

Everyone affected stressed that there appears to be no fix for these issues in the near future – regardless of the Coronavirus.

Liz Webster, a Wiltshire farmer who sells meat to Marks & Spencer, has said that while the pandemic has undoubtedly been a contributing factor, these issues began with Brexit – not the ‘pingdemic’.

“[The right-wing media] are trying to scapegoat the blame onto the Test and Trace ping system because they want to deflect the blame from Brexit,” she said today. “It’s a convenient scapegoat. The real problem at the heart of food shortages is Brexit. That’s it. No other country is having these issues. Supermarkets in France and Ireland are having no food shortages.”

It isn’t just supermarkets either. Pubs and restaurants everywhere are feeling the knock-on effects of the disruption caused by Brexit.

John Hamilton, a nightclub owner in Manchester’s Gay Village, said that he was able to successfully adapt to keep his business open despite the pandemic – but that the shortages he is experiencing are the consequences of Brexit.

“There’s a shortage of beer, certain products of beer,” he said. “The lorries can only come in at certain times and sometimes they don’t even come. I’ve got five pumps and one of those beers I can’t even stock because there isn’t any there… it’s an absolute cock-up.”

On top of goods, he is also facing staff shortages, which like Laura Salt, he puts down to a dearth of EU migrant workers – a demographic which the hospitality sector has traditionally relied on.

Speaking to these business owners, managers and labourers, it is clear that in spite of the difficulties the pandemic has forced upon them, it is Brexit which is the major source of their woes. These are professionals who live and work every day on various stages of the supply chain – they know better than anyone the issues they face and their cause.

So, when they say that Brexit has resulted in empty shelves, I think we had better believe them.

Caolan Robertson is a producer at Byline TV

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