What can be done to solve East Anglia's shortages?

File photo dated 19/03/2020 of empty shelves at a Sainsburys. The boss of the Food and Drink Federat

A perfect storm of Brexit and Covid have left some shelves empty in East Anglia - Credit: PA

Timber. Bottled water. Fruit. Bikes. Salad. Bar staff. HGV drivers. Toys. Political leadership? It has crept up on us but it is clearly here – East Anglia is in the grip of some serious shortages. Richard Porritt reports...

There are empty shelves. Staff are hard to find. But why? 

We were warned back in the closing months of 2019 - as the country stood, wobbling nervously on the Brexit precipice - of worst-case scenarios. 

But those fears were washed away on a tide of Covid terror. Staffing shortages were less of an issue when everything was shut and struggling to get the odd thing in the supermarket paled into insignificance next to soaring death rates and lockdown.

Although not being able to quaff your favourite bottled water is annoying it is not as serious for the UK economy as staff shortages.

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Many believed the furlough scheme was impacting the job market. The thinking was that employment rates were inflated because companies were keeping surplus staff on while the taxpayer was footing their wages.

Sadly the Confederation of British Industry disagree the scheme’s demise will help.

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Director general Tony Danker said: “While the CBI and other economists still predict growth returning to pre-pandemic levels later this year, furlough ending is not the panacea some people think will magically fill labour supply gaps.

“The CBI said its recent economic surveys and consultations with members point to labour shortages as a growing constraint on businesses’ plans to invest in the year ahead.

“Standing firm and waiting for shortages to solve themselves is not the way to run an economy.

“Many overseas workers left during the pandemic, affecting sectors including hospitality, logistics and food processing.”

Government schemes to get people back into the workforce have so for failed to get the take up that was hoped for. Figures for the Kickstart scheme in the East of England are poor.

Mr Danker added that businesses welcomed the initiatives but warned that training “takes time to yield results, and some members suggest it could take two years rather than a couple of months for labour shortages to be fully eliminated”.

The staffing crisis has been most acutely felt in the hospitality sector. Pubs, bars and restaurants had to go from shut to open and busier than ever in the space of weeks. It was no surprise many struggled through the summer.

So who to blame? And, more importantly, what can be done?

A former Tory minister believes shortages could be building towards a political crescendo for Boris Johnson and his cabinet.

“There is no doubt about it – in normal times if we were suffering shortages across the board like we are now the government would be being dragged across hot coals,” he said. 

“As it is they are getting away with that one because of everything that is going on – Covid and Afghanistan.

“But I am reminded of something an old MP told me when I was fretting about something as a young MP. He said: ‘This problem is highly unlikely to impact the average voter’s daily life – when something does you need to really start worrying’. Well shortages are now doing that.

“Business leaders are going to put more and more pressure on us to make it easier for overseas workers to come back to the UK. I can’t see any other viable solution – but Leave voters probably won’t like it. 

“I think this issue has broken the surface now and will continue to bubble away. It is something the Labour could definitely use to attack the government.

“And to add insult to injury struggling firms have now been slapped with a tax increase that means it will cost them even more employ someone. And salaries for some jobs are already unsustainable – HGV drivers for one.

“Someone in government needs to get a grip because with Christmas looming this could become a very big problem.” 

Other experts agree – these shortages are not just going to disappear. There either needs to be serious and significant intervention at government level or a grim acceptance that it will take years to get back to normal. 

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