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Have lockdowns and living off government handouts for 18 months made Britons workshy?

Have lockdowns and living off government handouts for 18 months made Britons workshy?
Being paid to stay home and do nothing for months on end during the pandemic seems to have gone down so well with Brits that they’re showing a marked reluctance to go back to work, particularly in jobs that are unpleasant or hard.

Britons who are old enough to remember shudder at the thought of a return to the dark days of the 1970s, when workers from countless professions, from refuse collectors to ambulance drivers, went on strike. 

Employers just couldn’t catch a break, and neither could the government. “Apparently the British, never very keen on hard work, have decided on permanent inactivity,” Bernard Donoughue, adviser to then-Prime Minister James Callaghan, complained in his diary at the height of the economic woes. 

OK, so perhaps it’s a little soon to compare Britain’s post-Brexit, post-pandemic labour market to the Winter of Discontent, but there’s some concerning signs that Britons have grown used to living on inflated benefits and government-funded sabbaticals. 

At the latest count, there were a record 1,034,000 job vacancies according to the Office for National Statistics’ quarterly report, while there were a total of 1.66 million active job adverts in the UK. From anecdotal reports that pubs just can’t get the bar staff, to national news stories about a dearth of lorry drivers, there’s no shortage of evidence that lots of people just aren’t bothering to find a job. 

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With regards to truckers, the shortfall is estimated to be around 100,000 drivers, according to the Road Haulage Association (RHA), and it doesn’t pay badly either. Some reports suggest drivers are being offered £50,000 salaries and £5,000 signing-on fees in an attempt to entice those looking for good money. 

Maybe it’s the case that some jobs just aren’t that popular, particularly for those who have come to enjoy their lives of leisure, bankrolled by the taxpayer; bar work, after all, can be fairly exhausting, while lorry drivers are often expected to be away from home for days, if not weeks, on end. 

After last year’s push to get furloughed Britons to pick fruit amid concerns there would be fewer seasonal pickers flown in from eastern Europe, it was no surprise that farms were short-staffed again this summer. According to the National Union of Farmers, only 11% of seasonal workers in the 2020 season were UK residents, and with added Brexit red tape, EU workers found it difficult to get visas.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has warned that staff shortages may be with us for years as the nation’s labour market readjusts to the post-pandemic, post-Brexit norms. Other industry leaders are more worried about the short term; Gary Grant, boss of toy chain The Entertainer, added that staff shortages, especially in warehouses, could cause chaos in the run-up to the busy festive period.  

While it is true that the labour market has been hit with a double whammy – the pandemic and Brexit – there may be other factors at work. In recent weeks, sections of the British public, as well as celebrities such as Marcus Rashford and charities like the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, have pilloried the government after it announced an end to a temporary scheme that topped up welfare payments by £20 a week. Claimants are scheduled to receive their final enhanced credit on October 6.  

In a letter signed by 100 organisations and addressed to the prime minister, the Rowntree Foundation, which focuses on research into poverty, said that the drop in Universal Credit payments could plunge as many as 500,000 people into poverty, including 200,000 children. The charity claims that most people who receive Universal Credit are working, although the extent of that varies. 

And if it wasn’t already going to be a vote loser for the Tory government, it got worse when news circulated that Chancellor Rishi Sunak had been given planning approval for a new pool and tennis court at his North Yorkshire manor, just weeks after confirming the welfare cut for the country’s poorest. 

Be it by design or not, the unpopular benefits cut comes just six days after the government’s pandemic furlough scheme – which in its original form paid workers 80% of their salaries up to £2,500 each month to do nothing – reaches its conclusion. The programme, which has undoubtedly saved millions of jobs since March 2020, will have cost the government £66 billion by the time it ends, according to estimates from the Office for Budget Responsibility. 

While I’m sure some people despised their pandemic-induced sabbatical, and others must have struggled on their reduced salaries, the state has most certainly been more generous than usual. How many of them might have secretly enjoyed being paid to do nothing, and are not relishing the thought of returning to work?

The most recent figures, from June, show that around 1.9 million Britons were still on furlough. Come September 30, their employers will either be taking them back or a host of people will be made jobless. 

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Why is this all so important? Well, no government wants a workshy workforce, and it’s already becoming clear that labour shortages will undoubtedly hamper Britain’s post-Covid recovery. This July, the so-called ‘pingdemic’ (where people were forced to self-isolate after contact with someone with Covid), as well as a shortage of semiconductors, saw British car production slump to its lowest level since 1956 

Secondly, the pandemic has cost the British government a fortune and it will take years to pay back; the last thing it needs is more costly welfare payments and workshy Britons not willing to pull their weight and contribute into the coffers. From April 2020 to April 2021, the government borrowed a whopping £299 billion, the highest since records began. Many generations will be saddled with paying this back – the government didn’t finish paying off its World War One debts until 2015.  

And finally, let’s not forget Brexit. In my lifetime at least, Europeans and other foreigners have often done the jobs Brits just don’t want to do, such as fruit picking and cleaning loos and offices. For the first time in decades, the British labour market can’t just rely on EU workers coming over and taking up those seemingly ‘unpopular' jobs. “It was a nightmare before EU migration,” an older relative tells me. I guess we'll just have to see if history repeats itself. 

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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