Comment: A Priti fine mess

By the Uncivil Servant, our anonymous columnist with an insider’s view of government.

Our Home Office Secretary of State, Priti Patel really isn’t great with numbers. The awkward fumbling over figures in her first Coronavirus press briefing comes weeks after the launch of her crackpot immigration figures.

70% of the existing EU workforce will not meet the requirements of the new ‘skilled worker route’ as set out in government’s draft immigration proposals. It’s OK though, because, according to Ms. Patel, there are over eight million ‘inactive citizens’ chomping at the bit to become dairy herdsmen, chicken catchers and cauliflower pickers. Sadly, some quick crunching of the numbers reveals that only 1.9 million of them are actually able to work. The rest are otherwise engaged in education, retirement, care duties or long-term sick.

One civil servant told me that his father was amongst the eight million inactive citizens, but was currently at home wearing an oxygen mask. The government’s own policy advisers can see the ludicrous logic that sits behind this plan, but nobody will speak up.

I would put money on the entire immigration policy being redrafted on the other side of this experience. Farmers and their workforce have moved up the hierarchy from low-skilled, to being designated ‘key workers’ in the Great British coronavirus endeavour. The legacy of this pandemic will change the perceptions of a generation of politicians and policymakers.

The food and farming industry always pulls together in a crisis. Farmers have, typically, responded swiftly and shown great resilience. From recruitment woes and changes in practices, to coping with the volatility of consumer demand, which has oscillated from panic buying to (as one farmer eloquently put it to me) ‘flat as a fart.’

We’re all finding new ways of working. Never did I imagine having a cabinet member on conference call while my children inflicted Grievous Bodily Harm on each other with Brio in the background.

Defra, it must be said, is all hands to the pump. I had an email from a civil servant at 1am last Saturday morning (trust me, that never happens!). They are rallying to ensure that every mechanism at government’s disposal is deployed to ease the strain.

Despite the ill-informed views of some cabinet members that we can ‘just import all our food’, government is learning that you can’t trade your way out of a problem. While this crisis will cast a very long shadow, it is undoubtedly an opportunity for British food and farming to show what it can do.


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