Britain Is Heading Into a Nightmarish Winter

LONDON — Long lines outside gas stations. Panicked drivers fighting one another as the pumps run dry. Soldiers deployed to distribute fuel across the country. And in the background, the pandemic stretching on, food rotting in fields and families sinking into poverty. This is Britain in 2021.

Not long ago, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson lifted all pandemic restrictions in July, the mood across the country was cautiously optimistic. A successful vaccine rollout had finally restored cherished freedoms to daily life: visiting friends and family in their homes, socializing with strangers, eating in restaurants. Cases of the virus continued to multiply, but the number of hospitalizations and deaths fell markedly. The nightmare, it seemed, was over.

But any sense of normality has been banished in the past few weeks. A dramatic fuel crisis, caused in large part by a lack of truck drivers and which at its peak forced around a third of all gas stations to close, is only the most glaring concern.

A convergence of problems — a global gas shortage, rising energy and food prices, supply-chain issues and the Conservatives’ decision to slash welfare — has cast the country’s future in darkness. Even Mr. Johnson, known for his boosterish optimism and bonhomie, has struggled to make light of the situation.

The panic of the past week, which recalled old memories (and myths) about the tumultuous late 1970s, was a long time coming. For many months, industry leaders across the economy have warned about chronic labor shortages — of truck drivers, yes, but also fruit pickers, meat processors, waiters and health care workers — disrupting supply chains and impeding businesses.

The signs of breakdown are everywhere: empty shelves in supermarkets, food going to waste in fields, more and more vacancy posters tacked to the windows of shops and restaurants. Meat producers have even called on the government to let them hire prisoners to plug the gap.

One of the main causes of this predicament is Brexit, or at least the government’s handling of Brexit. Britain’s protracted departure from the bloc, undertaken without any real effort by Mr. Johnson to ensure a smooth transition, led to an exodus of European workers — a process then compounded by the pandemic. As many as 1.3 million overseas nationals left Britain between July 2019 and September 2020.

Yet as it became clear that Britain faced substantial shortages in labor, the Conservatives refused to respond. They bloviated, calling it a “manufactured situation.” They prevaricated, assuring the public there was nothing to worry about. And, seeing the chance to recast their negligence as benevolence, they claimed their failure to act was because they wanted companies to pay British workers more, instead of relying on cheap foreign labor.

This alibi for inaction is unconvincing. In the Netherlands, for example, new legislation has improved the pay and working conditions for truck drivers. In Britain, conditions remain among the worst in Europe. The government’s belated response — offering 5,000 temporary visas for drivers from E.U. nations — is too little, too late.

Instead of higher wages, the British public have so far encountered only higher prices. Inflation has risen faster than at any point since 1997 and the climbing price of gas globally is placing further strain on people’s lives, making energy more expensive than anywhere in Europe.

Whereas other governments, in Spain and Italy, have ensured that struggling families are protected from rising costs, the Conservatives have offered no such clemency. Three million households in Britain already live in “fuel poverty,” made to choose between heating and eating in the winter. After the Conservatives raise a cap on energy prices in October, that number is expected to increase by a further half million.

Mr. Johnson nonetheless claims to have given British Conservatism a kinder face. He speaks rousingly of “leveling up” and “turbocharging” left-behind communities. But the behavior of his government suggests otherwise.

On Sept. 30, it ended a program that compensated people for up to 80 percent of lost income during the pandemic. And on Oct. 6, the Conservatives will cut Universal Credit, Britain’s all-encompassing welfare program, by 20 pounds, or $27, a week — just when more people than ever rely on it. The largest single reduction to the welfare state in British history, it’s forecast to push half a million more people below the poverty line, including 200,000 children. (A newly announced winter hardship fund worth £500 million, or $673 million, will do little to soften a cut 12 times its size.)

This grim confluence, from fuel shortages to spiraling poverty, has been described by many as a “perfect storm.” Yet the metaphor erases the active role the Conservatives — and in particular, the prime minister — have played in orchestrating these foreboding conditions. The bleak winter ahead is of their making.

But Mr. Johnson is unlikely to bear the consequences of his actions. His government, resting on a large majority, remains secure. And for him, crises are always opportunities. A master shape-shifter, unburdened by any sense of accountability or honesty, he thrives in conditions of adversity. The rest of the country won’t be so lucky.

Samuel Earle (@swajcmanearle) is a British journalist whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic and The New Republic, among other publications.

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