Epic food and fuel shortages test a nation famous for keeping calm and carrying on

October 7, 2021, 10:01 AM UTC

There’s nothing like sitting stuck in London traffic to make one contemplate life’s big questions: Is the money really worth the commute? What does it say about me that I defer so readily to Google Maps? Why didn’t I use the toilet before I left the house? And, in this particular case, how in God’s name did I ever let my wife talk me into moving to this country?

That existential angst is particularly acute when the traffic jam is not just run-of-the-mill highway congestion but a quarter-mile backup moving at the speed of a lichen colony toward the forecourt of a Tesco Extra gas station on London’s North Circular.

But I needed the gas. The previous two filling stations I had tried had none, like most of the others in London. And so I had little choice but to sit in line and watch my fuel gauge tick inexorably toward empty like some clumsy metaphor for the United Kingdom’s global status.

The U.K.’s fuel shortages are—depending on whether the person you ask is a government minister or anyone else—either the result of completely hysterical panic buying, or a lack of trained tanker truck drivers to bring fuel to gas stations, coupled with completely rational stockpiling when word inevitably got out that some gas stations were running out of fuel.

The lack of drivers is, in turn, partly the result of the U.K.’s decision to leave the European Union, despite being a small island nation whose economy is utterly dependent on imports of both goods and labor from (um, checks notes) Europe.

For the life of me, I couldn’t remember signing up for this level of dysfunction when I moved here a decade ago after a stint in India. But there I sat, as calmly, I thought, as a frog in water slowly coming to a boil.

At least there’s sovereignty

Britain is more heavily dependent on trade than many other developed economies. In 2019, before the pandemic, imports and exports were 63% of U.K. GDP, according to the World Bank. That compares to 46% for Australia, 35% for Japan, and just 24% for the U.S. And the EU is by far the U.K.’s most important trading partner, accounting in 2019 for 43% of exports and 52% of imports.

All those goods need to move on trucks once they get to Britain—or in many cases European trucks are ferried across the English Channel or taken by train through the Channel Tunnel to the U.K. But during the coronavirus pandemic, about 15,000 Eastern European truckers left the U.K., and Brexit immigration rules make it difficult for them to return. It also makes it impossible for any new European drivers to be recruited. Which goes a long way to explaining why today the country is facing a shortfall of about 100,000 commercial truck drivers, according to the U.K. Road Haulage Association.

Brexit isn’t the only reason for this crisis, of course. Playing supporting roles are tax rule changes that have made it harder for truckers to earn money as independent contractors, resulting in many leaving the industry. Then there are drivers’ wages, which until the current shortages had not kept pace with those in other sectors. That made trucking, with its unsociable hours and dingy roadside bathrooms, less attractive. And let’s not forget a big licensing backlog, which has made it hard for new drivers to enter the profession. Still, Brexit is a key factor.

But hey, sovereignty. That’s what, I’m told, those who voted for Brexit wanted to wrest back from Brussels. As an American, I ought to appreciate sovereignty. After all, didn’t one of my country’s founding fathers declare, Give me liberty or give me death? But, guys, it was supposed to be a choice—liberty OR death. Again, Britain seems determined, in the immortal words of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, one of Brexit’s leading architects, to have its cake and eat it.

And it’s a damn good thing that Britons can have cake, by the way. Because guess what they can’t have? Pasta, apparently. Oh, and not chicken. Or pork. In addition to there being no fuel, the shelves of my local Sainsbury’s supermarket in North London were on Monday evening empty of many staples. (The food shortages are hit-and-miss. There were plenty of vegetables and the fruit selection was okay for this time of year. And unlike early in the pandemic, I did not look at the toilet paper aisle and wonder if I had been foolish to allow the city to dispose of the leaves I had raked from the back garden. But poultry and pork? Nada.)

It’s a good thing that Britons can have cake. Because guess what they can’t have? Pasta, apparently. Oh, and not chicken. Or pork.
Hesther Ng—SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

When I did fill my trolley (which is what they call a shopping cart in this country), the bill was noticeably higher than it had been six months ago. Consumer prices are rising fast—jumping at a 3.2% annual rate in August, accelerating from 2% in July, the largest month-on-month increase since the Bank of England started keeping track. I then returned home to news stories speculating that my gas and electricity supplier, an upstart called Bulb Energy that claims that its energy comes from 100% renewable sources, was in potential danger of going belly-up due to spiking natural-gas prices.

The causes of these simultaneous problems—the disappearance of pasta, fuel, and meat, and rising food and energy prices—are not one and the same. You can chalk the fuel shortage up to the lack of drivers and panic buying, while the pasta shortfall is due to the failure of the durum wheat crop in Canada following a record heat wave combined with a poor European harvest after a harsh winter—in other words, climate change.

Over in the meat section, the problem is not enough slaughterhouse workers—that pesky immigration issue again—combined with a lack of the industrial carbon dioxide used to help preserve packaged pork belly and chicken cutlets. The factories that produce the carbon dioxide had to shut down owing to soaring electricity prices and because the U.K. power grid has often had to prioritize the flow of electrons to homes rather than to industrial customers, a rationing behavior due in part by winds in the North Sea—where wind turbines normally generate much of Britain’s electricity—that have been unusually quiet over the past several months. The upshot? There are now 150,000 pigs stuck on British farms awaiting slaughter that may have to be simply culled, according to the National Pig Association.

No going back

There are some common threads loosely linking all these challenges: Brexit as a contributing factor, combined with the government’s failure to anticipate and take proactive steps to avert a crisis. Taken together, they add up to an autumn of discontent for the U.K. just as Johnson was hoping to burnish his Conservative Party’s governing credentials as it holds its annual party conference in Manchester.

Not that Johnson seems particularly worried. Polling shows that so far, the British people have been willing to give his government the benefit of the doubt. (They like his insouciance and his hair, I guess.) But some Tory Party officials worry support for the government could collapse if the supply shortages, inflation, and fuel price hikes wind up playing Scrooge at Christmas. The Prime Minister, when asked about this, has promised that this year’s Christmas will be better than last year’s Christmas. That would be the Christmas he had to essentially cancel at the last minute due to spiking coronavirus cases, which were largely the result of his earlier plan to “save Christmas” by lifting lockdown restrictions (prematurely, it turned out).

Johnson, in his speech Wednesday before the party conference, essentially told doubters, including many in the business community, to get over themselves. He argued that the linked crises are not crises at all but actually a positive sign that the economy is kicking its unhealthy addiction to the party drug of cheap foreign labor. “We are not going back to the same old broken model with low wages, low growth, low skills, and low productivity, all of it enabled and assisted by uncontrolled immigration,” Johnson said. Instead, the Prime Minister is calling on business to invest in training British workers, paying them more, and buying new equipment and technology.

Muddling through

“Business supports the government’s ambition to move to a sustainably high-skilled, high-wage economy, which does more to harness homegrown skills and talents, but this is a huge transition that will not happen overnight,” James Martin, director of policy at the British Chambers of Commerce, said. “Simply riding it out is not an option.”

But riding it out seems to be the government’s strategy. It has taken a few small steps to deal with the driver shortage: It mobilized the army to drive fuel tanker trucks, has tried to tempt former British truckers back into their cabs, and attempted to cut a backlog for the licensing test needed to operate commercial trucks. And, never one to be bound by his own prior pronouncements, Johnson’s reversed an initial refusal to issue any temporary worker visas.

Meanwhile, the government doesn’t seem to have even small tools at hand to deal with the energy crisis. And the situation is likely to get worse as autumn turns to winter and demand for gas for home heating spikes. There are gas shortages throughout Europe. And the U.K. is critically dependent on gas stored elsewhere on the Continent. Marco Alverà, head of Snam, an Italian energy infrastructure company, told Bloomberg that if Europe has a cold winter, some countries may institute emergency gas export restrictions, cutting off the U.K. entirely. So it looks like it might be a Dickensian Christmas after all—complete with candlelight.

The lack of drivers is partly the result of the U.K.’s decision to leave the EU, despite being a small island nation whose economy is utterly dependent on imports of goods and labor from Europe.
Yui Mok—PA Images via Getty Images

It all has the feeling of too little, too late. The government offered to grant temporary work permits for 5,000 foreign truckers and 5,500 poultry workers. But so far, take-up has been slow: Just 27 foreign truck drivers applied for the new visas in the first week they were available. That’s not surprising. The demand for truckers has been soaring throughout Europe as economies suddenly revive following the pandemic. British wages are not high enough to attract many of them away from their families.

And then there’s the issue of being offered a temporary job in a country that recently made it very clear that your kind weren’t wanted. As Edwin Atema of the Dutch union federation FNV put it in a recent BBC interview: “The EU workers we speak to will not go to the U.K. for a short-term visa to help the U.K. out of the shit they created themselves.”

Ghost of crisis past

Gas lines, bare supermarket shelves, inflation, the prospect of rolling blackouts, and a government sufferingly from self-inflicted economic wounds and seemingly divorced from reality—it gives me déjà vu. Sitting in that creeping gas line outside the Tesco, I tried to place the feeling. Then it hit me: Venezuela, 2003. Another winter of discontent.

That January, Fortune had dispatched me down to Caracas to report on a national general strike. The strike’s locus was the state-owned oil company PDVSA, which Hugo Chávez believed was staffed with political opponents and was trying to bring under greater control by appointing cronies to its management.

The strike had crippled refineries, leading to fuel shortages and an economic crisis, as other workers also stayed home. Combined with daily mass demonstrations, the strike was supposed to force Chávez from power. It didn’t work. But at least there were people in the street, protesting. So far, there are no demonstrations here. Brits are experts in the art of simply putting up with it—“keep calm and carry on” and all that. It’s an admirable attribute.

Except when it isn’t.

Correction, Oct. 7: An earlier version of this story misidentified James Martin’s title at the British Chambers of Commerce.

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