Long lines outside gas stations. Panicked drivers fighting one another as the pumps run dry. Soldiers deployed to distribute fuel across the country. And in the background, the pandemic stretching on, food rotting in fields and families sinking into poverty. This is Britain in 2021.
Not long ago, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson lifted all pandemic restrictions in July, the mood across the country was cautiously optimistic. A successful vaccine rollout had finally restored cherished freedoms to daily life: visiting friends and family in their homes, socializing with strangers, eating in restaurants. Cases of the virus continued to multiply, but the number of hospitalizations and deaths fell markedly. The nightmare, it seemed, was over.
But any sense of normality has been banished in the past few weeks. A dramatic fuel crisis, which has been caused in large part by a lack of truck drivers and at its peak forced around a third of all gas stations to close, is only the most glaring concern.
A convergence of problems — a global gas shortage, rising energy and food prices, supply-chain issues and the Conservatives’ decision to slash welfare — has cast the country’s future in darkness. Even Mr. Johnson, known for his boosterish optimism and bonhomie, has struggled to make light of the situation.
The panic of the past week, which recalled old memories (and myths) about the tumultuous late 1970s, was a long time coming. For many months, industry leaders across the economy have warned about chronic labor shortages — of truck drivers, yes, but also fruit pickers, meat processors, waiters and health care workers — disrupting supply chains and impeding businesses.
The signs of breakdown are everywhere: empty shelves in supermarkets, food going to waste in fields, more and more vacancy posters tacked to the windows of shops and restaurants. Meat producers have even called on the government to let them hire prisoners to plug the gap.
One of the main causes of this predicament is Brexit, or at least the government’s handling of Brexit. Britain’s protracted departure from the bloc, undertaken without any real effort by Mr. Johnson to ensure a smooth transition, led to an exodus of European workers — a process then compounded by the pandemic. As many as 1.3 million overseas nationals left Britain between July 2019 and September 2020.
Yet as it became clear that Britain faced substantial shortages in labor, the Conservatives refused to respond. They bloviated, calling it a “manufactured situation.” They prevaricated, assuring the public there was nothing to worry about. And, seeing the chance to recast their negligence as benevolence, they claimed their failure to act was because they wanted companies to pay British workers more instead of rely on cheap foreign labor.
Why….it’s almost as if right wing populism around immigrants and jobs is complete bullshit that will do more to hurt those scared about immigration and globalization than having immigrants around in a globalized world! But hey, I’m sure the lobsterbacks will do just fine this winter. After all, when you get what you ask for, it’s not as if anything could go wrong. Just ask all the anti-vaxxers in the U.S.!