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Why can’t we blame Brexit, even partly?

by Richard Pooley

My 95-year old mother-in-law moved from her home of fifty or so years to a care home outside Bath, UK, exactly eleven weeks ago; “or so” because she bought and sold it and then bought it again. It’s a private care home, meaning that its twenty-seven residents each pay between £72,800 and £85,800 a year. It is run by Bupa, an international healthcare company headquartered in the UK. The last report on it, in 2020, by the care regulator, the Care Quality Commission, declared the service it provided to be “Good”. Last year it was voted one of the UK’s top luxury care homes. Last week the food in the home was cooked by a cleaner.

The food was, in the word of my mother-in-law, “disgusting”. But then it has been disgusting since she arrived (pink sausages in a slurry of baked beans is but one example). The reason? The chef went on maternity leave in May. The management don’t know if she will come back. They must keep the place open for her if she decides to return and so cannot recruit a permanent replacement. They turned to an agency to provide a rota of three chefs. So far none of these agency staff have been British. Nor from the European Union. Two were Filipinos. They clearly have no idea how to cook. Last week the agency failed to provide anyone. So, the task of cooking for 27 elderly people in one of the most expensive care homes in the country was given to one of the cleaners.

My wife and I have, of course, taken this up with the care home management and will, I predict, soon have to write to Bupa and the Care Quality Commission. But I doubt the quality of the cooked food will improve. Why? Because this problem, and so many others like it, has partly been caused by the UK leaving the EU and can only be solved if our rulers, all Brexiteers now, accept this fact. But please note, Brexit-supporting readers, I said “partly”.

Recruiting a person who is a qualified chef or simply someone who can cook food properly is a nation-wide problem for restaurants, pubs, hotels, hospitals and care homes. A survey late last year showed that there was a shortage of 188,000 hospitality staff – waiters, bar-workers, cooks, maids, cleaners etc - in the UK. In 2019, before the Covid pandemic, 30% of hospitality workers came from the EU and 50% of chefs had been born outside the UK. A jobs website, Indeed, has found that searches from EU-based job-seekers for roles in the UK hospitality sector are down by 41% from 2019 levels. Frankly, we Brits don’t need to be told these figures. Look in the window of almost any pub or restaurant and you will see a sign saying “Staff needed”. More specifically what they often want is a cook but few dare say so. Who wants to eat at a restaurant which admits it is short of a chef?

In the last two weeks I have attended a gathering in Scotland of forty-two members of my extended family and a godson’s wedding in Surrey. I swiftly learned not to bother telling of my mother-in-law’s care home experience to those at either event. Those who voted in 2016 to remain in the EU, as I did, usually responded with a list of other examples of “disasters” caused by Brexit but offered no solutions. Those who voted to leave were unanimous: Brexit was not the cause; every country had the same labour-shortage problem.

Both responses are fatuous. Brexit is not the cause of most of our current economic and social problems and even where it is a cause it is seldom the sole one. But to deny that it is ever the cause is foolish in the extreme. There are indeed labour shortages in many sectors across Europe, not just in the UK. But the lack of workers is particularly acute in the UK in certain sectors – agriculture, hospitality, social care – and the cause is mainly Brexit.

Take back control!” was the slogan of those campaigning for Brexit. To most Brexit voters this meant taking back control of our borders. And the UK has now done so. The government has introduced a points-based immigration system which has closed the door on “low-skilled” migrants from anywhere, not just the EU. Result: fruit and vegetables rotting in orchards and fields because no British people are prepared to fill the places left by “low-skilled” agricultural workers from central and eastern Europe; pubs and restaurants having to close or reduce their opening times because they cannot replace the “low-skilled” staff they used to get from across the EU; and old people not being provided with the care and edible food they have every right to expect because the government regards those from overseas who used to provide so much of that care and food as “low-skilled”.

Paddy O’Connell, presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House on Sunday mornings, was questioning a Conservative Party MP last month about why holiday-makers and lorry drivers, trying to get across to France, had been held up for hours (days in the case of some lorry drivers) at the port of Dover on the previous Friday and Saturday. The politician, like most of the media, blamed the French: too few French immigration officials had turned up to man all their passport control booths. This was true. As O’Connell had discovered in an earlier interview with a trades unionist representing UK Border Force staff, it now takes, on average, 50 seconds for a French official at Dover to check, register and stamp each traveller’s passport*. Before the UK left the EU, cars and most lorries were simply waved through. But now the French back control. They need to have a record of who from a “third party country” (e.g. the UK, Turkey or Guinea-Bissau) has entered their country and when. Multiply 50 seconds by the 7,000 occupants of cars and lorries who managed to cross to France that day and you can surely understand why Dover was grid-locked, cars were queuing half-way back to London, and lorries were parked for tens of kilometres (sorry, miles, Brexiteers) along the motorway. Yes, more French officials should have turned up. But if this is not to happen again and again, the UK has to persuade the French to supply far more officials. And probably pay for them. After all, why should the French fund a problem solely created by the British?

Yet the Tory MP was having none of it. Four times, I think, O’Connell asked him to accept that Brexit was partly a cause of the problem at Dover. He refused to do so.

Why is such a denial by a member of our ruling party a problem? Because the present and future Prime Ministers and government ministers (and the media who are their cheer-leaders) are also in denial. By refusing to look at problems objectively, how can they solve them effectively?

Meanwhile, my mother-in-law, a talented cook herself, wonders why the care home can’t find “a 65-year old housewife who knows how to cook; it can’t be difficult.” She and her late husband voted for Brexit but it would serve no purpose to point out the consequences.

*I timed the same process at London’s St Pancras station in June and Paris’ Gare du Nord in July – 30 seconds and a minute respectively. On earlier trips, when having to present proof of Covid vaccinations, it could take twice as long.



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