Yeah we’re in for some stormy weather. It's obvious, right? I am currently at home, COVID infused, with mild symptoms thankfully, and gratefully double Zeneca vaxxed, so that’s not too bad. Remember, the Vaccine(s) do NOT STOP you getting infected, do NOT stop the symptoms, do NOT STOP me, you or anyone becoming infectious. Vaccines DO BOOST your own immune systems, Vaccines will mitigate the WORST effects of the infection, and ARE LIKELY to reduce the need for hospitalisation. For me the messages around Viral spread and transmission are as relevant as ever, and perhaps more pertinent now than in the past, we all, me included, relaxed our guard. We are, I believe, past the worst, but this virus is active, and it will continue to immobilise, hospitalise, and unfortunately take lives across the generations.
At the moment the mainstream media faces a range of news challenges, in events, their interpretation, and appropriate response. Sat at home I have time, a laptop, a legacy of opinion formation, and the arrogance to believe that my thoughts and their expression matters to anyone, (is that the requirement of a journalist). As a COVID sufferer, not desperately ill, some of the rising press stories are of more concern than others. Most immediately for me, friends and their elderly parents, the rising crisis in the NHS, and it’s poor hidden away, unloved sister, Social Care.
These two, intertwined as supply chains of food and fuel, hold the key to successful and thankfully less painful health outcomes for us all. Pre-COVID time, problems of post hospital care and support, both in specialism, and more generally in volume have been widely reported. Years past, the NHS struggled through with beds and resources consumed in quasi-medical / social care support. In the height of last year’s pandemic and health demand crisis, seriously ill patients were ‘farmed out’ to unsuitably under-resourced care home facilities. These homes were then criticised for care failures arising from levels and qualities of care they had never envisaged, trained, nor prepared for, and were consequently ill equipped, unprepared and struggled to provide.
Meanwhile mainstream hospitals delayed main stream non-COVID work, with the resultant, predictable backlog. As we approach a second COVID winter, we face the prospect of a second alike. The traditional response of the NHS, moving some cases to supported care homes, is less likely to be well received, and we may well face another NHS, non-COVID driven crisis with Cancer, Orthopaedic, and similar procedures delayed as bed availability falls.
It’s easy to blame the care homes, for what some see as intransigence on their part, but they, like other sectors, face a number of challenges wrapped and packaged like a multi-load delivery drop, that arise from COVID, BREXIT and the economic change arising from both. Care homes like much of the UK's key economic activities have benefited from influxes of young, enthusiastic, and it has to be said CHEAP labour, from new entrant nations to the EU. The simultaneous storm of BREXIT, then COVID, resulted in many workers heading to their host nations and home. The furlough uncertainties, the travel restrictions, encouraged migrants to see family. The rising rhetoric against such workers, reported through home country interviews, hastened their departure from the UK labour market across a whole range of sectors. Some of which are critical now, October to Easter, labour shortages will become more pressing, and unlikely to be significantly reduced. In the medium term, 2022 to 2024, in the longer term, anything is possible but the market for these skills has failed. What reason is there to believe there will be a phoenix like revival in UK based staff availability in any of these sectors.
For the last few weeks we’ve seen our nation’s leadership denying the looming crisis, agreeing that too tired drivers of 40 tonne lorries can drive longer exhausting hours. Heard promises that in 2023 care homes will get more professional recognition and maybe even funding through a new ‘Care Tax’. This is at best, almost laudable , at worst laughable, as a response. Apart from the fact it’s loaded in favour of wealthy Southern voters, at the expense of those in lower valued and predominantly Northern homes, it does nothing to tackle the current crisis washing, tsunami-like towards us in the health and care sectors.
One line has a ring of appropriate truth, - to adapt a line from ‘The Boss’ “Ten months burning down the road, nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go.”
Television glancing, press skimming, chat show listening. it’s obvious we’re running down a road, but i’m not too sure anyone knows where it's leading. If you watch the media, some of it is obviously true, food and fuel shortages are a precursor to a perfect storm, arising from the lack of HGV driver crisis. This crisis is and will be easily solved in the truck industry's short term view if only we, "Lift the restrictions on EU drivers" working here. Once the barriers for HGV drivers, then food packers, then adult care workers, then hospitality workers have been 'temporarily relaxed' - initially for six months, and then extended for a rolling six months until the crises have passed. In the minds of many commentators, it's problem over and skip down the road to the old 'new' reality, same as before: low wages, low worker rights, a marxist reserve army of poorly paid and employer dependent workers.
Not so fast thought, I’m not so sure. Before the COVID crisis and the accompanying phrase , “existential crisis”, was the phrase of the year, 10 years ago. When the global economy teetered in the edge of melting down. Then we faced a “paradigm shift”. Well I feel this is the closest the world’s come to this, in Europe especially, and the UK in particular. The current Government line - this a temporary post COVID crisis, a spike in transportation demand that’s merely a catch up for the past locked-in, close-down situation. That is undoubtedly true, there are some driver shortages across Europe. Harbours in the rich north have ships waiting for days to land containers, that will sit for weeks on quaysides, whilst non existent lorries are scheduled for pick up and delivery to locations, where non returning EU workers are not unloading, and selling stuff to customers. This will be the same all over Europe, and for ex UK workers there, they’re more likely to have gotten back into families and friends, found work, and achieved a better work-life balance that does NOT involve the UK commute and in Europe they drive on the same side of the road as they trained on. Also within the EU, an acknowledgement that this was coming has seen EU wide investment in wages, working conditions and infrastructure for drivers. No truckers in the UK are buying the £70,000 a years salary stories. But in the UK most likely they will still have to piss in their own pot.
All of this has to set against the legacy of BREXIT, and anti–migrant rhetoric, Theresa May’s anti-migrant bus, the hard line on EU workers in the midst of the BREXIT vote, the proposed drowning of French Boat people... None of this makes the UK an attractive place for EU workers. In terms of drivers and the casualised workforce, the effects of IR35 have started to bring home nature and effects of a low tax, low respect, low benefit economy, that sadly we all actively participate in to a more or lesser extent. In terms of a contribution we are all culpable, and use all these just in time, low-waged, hard-pressed services, be it voluntary, through Boohoo or Amazon, or weekly supermarket convenient shops, and more use of next day delivery, whatever the reason. Dependency on these services has been built in, and an interruptions effect is now all too apparent.
Estimates suggest we are 100,00 truck drivers short, additionally that workforce has a high average age, suggesting this crisis won’t end anytime soon as older workers exhausted retire. From politicians there is the usual shite talk about sending in the army... We have 120,000 troops, full time and reservists, they are NOT ALL HGV drivers and I suspect, that many of the Army's recorded HGV Drivers are reservists, (why would drive an HGV on Army pay, after army training when you can have a sort of family life and close to £45k plus per year). So the army reservist HGV drivers you hear about, coming like cavalry, will have full time jobs as, yep Heavy Goods Vehicle drivers, in the private sector.
The government has announced it sending letters to retired drivers asking them to return to work, what a load. Any barely competent business, facing this crisis known for a few years, will have already done that last year, and the idea that men, most drivers are men, will get back to work and “do it for Bonking Boris” is, - well you all know the answer on that.
This crisis has come to the fore with another reported petrol crisis, and all that entails for us as individuals, home delivery drivers and you guessed it HGV drivers. So here we have it, a JUST in time supply chain, THAT is now TOO BLOODY late, and struggles to home deliver from out of town stores, and warehouses, accessed through carbon intensive transport. I suspect the home delivery runs for many older ex-HGV drivers, (mortgage paid, kids colleged and flown nest) local driving, the closest to home working they can have, is a benefit they won’t give up easily.
I see similar issues in care homes where low wages, a casualised workforce, disrespected and dismissed has resulted in similar labour supply problems. In both areas Free movement of Labour helped the delivery of goods and services.
It’s reportedly similar in abattoirs, and vegetable picking. Sad thing is there’s a long tradition of a mobile seasonal workforce in food, and to some extent the EU free movement facilitated that. Historically Scottish herring workers followed fleets south, Cockneys harvested hops and fruit in ‘the garden of England’, and schools closed to facilitate harvests across England. The use of EU workers was an extension of this, albeit it in some cases a more exploitative form, as convictions for human trafficking and modern slavery testify.
These current and potential shortages, BREXIT, COVID or supply chain driven, will be drawn into sharp focus through a looming gas and energy crisis. We can see an easy bogeyman, and blame the Russians for limited Gas supplies. In reality, much of the world and especially the UK has adopted a ”just in time” model, and removed ‘expensive and wasteful Gas storage’, contributing to the current price hikes. All the media is full of government denials that the lights will be going out, and the heating switched off, well for the whole nation that may well be true, but a growing and significant minority that’s exactly what will happen, as the £20.00 income support cut bites, food price increases, and petrol costs eat into constrained budgets.
Of course just as with social care funding, and levelling up. There’ll be glib sound bites, there’ll be commissions, (Matthew Taylor will be appointed to one of them) and a few quid will be thrown around, fought over like meat by a pack of starving dogs. But the issue of labour, respect, value and incomes will have to be addressed to progress in the long term. We are steeped, (even many of the most equitably minded), in inconsistencies, and the HGV crisis brings a laser light focus on these. We want something on the cheap, and after a time it inevitably fails. If we want robustness, certainty and reliability we have to pay for slack in the supply chain, and that means protecting every link. They say a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. It's time, not to re-weld a link, but install a whole new chain.
By the time this hits OUTSIDELEFT I expect the government will have "U" turned much to the glee of Her Maj’s opposition, and the chance to adopt a yah-boo-sucks to you, and yells of “U” turn, and similar cheap shots, will be too tempting to pass up. These crisis events constitute a potential to challenge fundamental causes, the ‘Just in Time’, casualised labour approaches, and start a debate on social justice. In essence to start to flag up a fundamental change, a new paradigm in our society, and challenge the essence of low price, low cost, low human value that underpins just in time delivery and society. It’s a chance, like Scottish independence, possibly a once in a lifetime opportunity to challenge some of the fundamentals underpinning our society.
The problem is that many of us are beneficiaries of current way of doing business and we don't recognise ourselves as such. Cheap, supermarket food, Jeff Besos benevolence - next day home delivery, regardless of the human and environmental cost. Like the Green debate, and the changes required, we’re at the point where we know the options, are aware of the costs, can smell the benefits, and want the new world, but don’t want to pick the tab, either in tax hikes, travel restrictions, choice reductions. This is a time to start the debate, and start to shape a new road as the old one has failed and will continue to fail all too many of us, the majority of us. It’s time to end Freddie’s yells of “I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now”. We need a new anthem.
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