Let’s not let Lockdowns off the hook – shortages and disruptions come from stopping our economies

AS NEW PROBLEMS crop up in our return to as near-normal living in the aftermath of Covid-19 there is a new obstacle to holding to account those responsible for the economic and social damage done by lockdowns. Some people are intentionally shifting the blame to the wrong cause.

We can see it regularly in the mainstream media, and especially our broadcasters – it is the easy temptation to blame Brexit or the Ukraine War when it was the Covid Lockdowns that are the prime cause.

This is concerning, for in the campaigns against lockdowns people from different political groupings, different parties and opposing sides of single-issue causes came together to oppose the Government’s pandemic response in groups like ‘Recovery’. This included people who were for and against EU membership, it included people for and against Scottish independence, it included all shades of opinion on environmental issues and differing economic approaches. A major strength of the campaigning against the Government’s non-medical restrictions was the breadth of non-partisan support.

Sadly, I see that as being threatened as people return to their default campaigning positions on old issues – and restaging the Brexit debate is one of those outcomes. It needs to be avoided.

It matters not whether I supported Brexit (I did), for I know the manner of the UK’s leaving has caused some particular problems, but I also believe I know where they are a legitimate cause and where they are not. It only takes a little research to find when Brexit is not an especially onerous factor, but we all know a lie has marched halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on.

First it was supposed to be HGV drivers, or the lack of them. Now it is delays at airports through shortages of baggage handlers and security staff – the common theme being a lack of suitable workers to do particular tasks. 

No sooner has a skill shortage been identified and the cry goes out that we should relax controls on work visas so particular groups of EU workers can come into the UK and solve the problem. Yet in both these examples this is not the obvious solution it looks – because not having freedom of movement for EU workers is not the problem. Ironically, official figures show the number of migrants working in the British economy is now at its highest ever, something that doesn’t quite fit with blaming the end of freedom of movement. It’s obviously more complex than that.

HGV drivers

Although there was beyond doubt a huge shortage of HGV drivers at the end of last year detailed studies of why the shortages of drivers had arisen by recruitment specialists demonstrated the prime cause was in fact lockdowns. It was lockdowns that caused intolerable working conditions for drivers who found their toilet facilities closed – even by supermarkets they were delivering to. It was the lockdowns that disrupted the process for testing of new drivers that would replace those retiring, it was the lockdowns that prevented existing drivers renewing their licences because they could not get medical inspections by doctors. And it was lockdowns that had slowed to a halt the processing of new HGV licence applications because DVLA staff were now working from home. 

A detailed study of HGV driver recruitment last year found EU drivers going back to their home countries and not returning was a relatively small factor in the shortage. Once HGV drivers’ wages started to rise some 5,000 EU nationals entered back into their former roles as drivers – but they had never left Britain, they had always been available but the pay and conditions were so poor so they had found other jobs. Within a few months as the lockdown problems were overcome by a combination of Government tackling the bottlenecks and pay and conditions improving the shortage dropped significantly.

Incidentally, there were similar driver shortages in EU countries and the United States, and they were also caused by lockdowns and started to ease after they were ended. 

Airport security and baggage handlers

Now the latest ‘blame Brexit’ narrative that is letting lockdowns off the hook is the chaos at airports where there’s a shortage of security, baggage handlers and in some cases flight crews. Campaigners have been quick to blame Brexit – encouraged by aviation bosses with their own motives for opening up low paid sources of recruitment. There is an inconvenient truth, however, the same shortages are being reported by industry experts in Germany and France. Anyone going on the internet can see the chaos in Dublin due to staff shortages, in Germany the airports’ association reports a 20% shortage of ground staff and in France it is reported as 15-20%. The common cause is not in or out of the EU but lockdowns, especially as there is a time lag to get new staff trained and through security clearance. At the time of writing it is Italy that is having the most disruption at airports with all three of Milan’s airports suffering “excessive” delays (source: flightstats.com).

Airport disruption hotspots 08-06-22 at 08.30 Hottest in red, coolest in green

Food and fuel prices

The growing cost-of-living crisis is another area where blame is being apportioned away from lockdowns but can be traced back to the decisions to shut down supply chains and disrupt our economies. Fertilizer prices, influenced by gas supplies, were already under great pressure six months before Russia invaded Ukraine. The World Food Programme and others have been warning of likely famine because of the impact of lockdowns on food production – since 2020. The Ukraine situation has obviously made that much worse – but the damage started with covid restrictions. Shortages in raw materials and disruption to harvests were hitting industry and agriculture – only then did the Ukraine War come along to exacerbate the rising costs and make them worse. But Ukraine provided governments with cover for their poor decisions in 2020 and 2021.

And then there’s the cost of lockdowns leading to high taxes that impact on the rate of inflation and cost of living. Governments certainly don’t want to talk about that!

By all means blame Brexit or war where it is justified, but in the rush to lobby for rejoining the EU, campaigners are working against themselves by misrepresenting the truth, and worse – masking the real damage done, and still being felt – by the three lockdowns the UK endured.

What we are seeing is the price of lockdowns being blamed on other events by those who want to minimise the problems caused by their restrictions. A lot of people have an interest in that since they backed lockdowns – and if they get away with it we’ll not properly understand the damage the restrictions do in so many ways (such as mental health), raising the risk they will be repeated. 

Let’s not minimise the damage of lockdowns wherever it occurs. It will soon be a year since we started to come out of our third lockdown and our economy is still feeling the aftershocks. Let’s make sure the Government (and opposition) understand the origins of problems, for only then will they figure out that lockdowns should never, ever, be allowed to happen again.

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Brian Monteith is a former member of the Scottish and European Parliaments and managing editor of the Recovery blog.