Shortages across sectors are all linked up

The fuel crisis is just one of many interlinked staffing problems we are facing – and not just in the short term.

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“So, effectively, we’re back to lockdown,” I told the kids over the weekend, after driving to the hospital for an appointment and not seeing a single petrol station with any fuel to sell. You can say ‘don’t panic’ all you like, but it’s no good stating there is no petrol shortage when the petrol that there is is not available in the places you get it from. It’s not just getting people to school and the like – and will we see the return of homeschooling again if kids – and their teachers – can’t get to school?

I spoke to a friend over the weekend who works in social care. They had a crisis meeting on Friday about getting social care staff to people who desperately need them. Everything is linked together. You can target emergency services to ensure they get the supplies they need, but what about individual doctors or care workers or all the people who supply doctors’ surgeries, care homes and hospitals?

My partner rang on Saturday. He’s in Spain. “People are asking me what is happening in the UK,” he said. “It looks like it’s falling apart.” There is no problem with deliveries in Spain. There the problem seems to be young people going wild after months of being cooped up. I spoke to someone in Italy last week. Again, no national crisis with lorry drivers. Their problem is youth unemployment. Why the particular problem in the UK? Of course, there are contributing factors, such as Covid, but a large part of it is surely down to the word that dare not speak its name.

And there doesn’t seem to be any joined-up solution coming down the tracks. Some temporary visas may help a little; training some UK drivers may help longer term. I spoke to an organisation that is attempting to get more women into logistics. They made a big play of it being flexible, but there are many more barriers to address to get anything like the scale of drivers needed in.

There are, of course, many people stuck at home who could work but are facing barriers such as childcare problems, not just the cost but access. Childcare is another industry on the brink and facing huge staffing shortages. There are shortages across a number of different sectors and attracting people from hospitality or the care sector to drive lorries will surely only increase the shortages elsewhere.

Another issue is the conditions of employment – how we value our key workers, not just in terms of salary, but when it comes to the conditions in which they work. Pay rises are an important part of the jigsaw, but not the whole picture and many will no doubt be passed onto consumers unless the shareholders and the private equity-backed firms who own so many of our institutions, including 84% of our care homes, take less of a cut.

When asked about the ending of the Universal Credit uplift and, for instance, the hit on low-paid workers in particular of the health and social care levy, the Government keeps saying wages are going up in line with rising costs, but wage rises are not consistent across the economy. Many key workers in the public sector, for instance, where women dominate, have had their pay frozen.

The crises we see playing out in our care homes and elsewhere have often been decades in the making and are combined with massive demographic changes. These are only going to get worse as more of the Baby Boom generation gets past retirement. At the moment the Government seems to be hoping that former and retired lorry drivers will come to the rescue, even if many have left because of the conditions they were working in. It’s great that the value of older workers is being recognised, when it is a last resort, but there needs to be an overall plan for how to use them best across the whole economy, not an approach driven by panic.

Meanwhile, the Government is doing its traditional pass the buck act. It’s well past the time to stop blaming other people for everything and to sit down together like grown-ups and figure out what to do about not just the current crisis, but all the other ones coming hard on their heels.

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