When the idea of Brexit was being touted to the British electorate, one of the benefits, the voters were told, would be that Britain would be “able to take back control of its borders”.
This, in political parlance, was a fancy way of saying the Brits could control who came into the country and whether they could work or not. Yes, it was a knee jerk right-wing reaction to the 2 million or so workers from mostly eastern European countries who had made the United Kingdom their home particularly since Poland, Romania and Bulgaria joined the European Union and were subsequently allowed the right to work within the economic bloc.
In high streets up and down Britain, Polish food shops and cafés became commonplace, car washes sprang up staffed by Romanians with rags and power washers, and builders were often Bulgarian with little regard for the niceties of the Inland Revenue rules in the UK.
For many Britons, voting to leave the bloc was an opportunity to shut the door once and for all — even if it meant the British workers were less than willing to flip burgers and pull points for minimum wages.
Two years into this great Brexit experiment, the folly of leaving the bloc means that there’s a shortage of workers to drive trucks, stock shelves or pick the fruit and vegetables from British fields.
Chronic shortage of care staff
But the skills shortage is also reflected in nursing homes and hospitals, where there is a chronic shortage of care staff willing to look after the elderly and infirm, or clean and maintain the hundreds of hospitals in the National Health Service. It’s estimated now that one-in-four jobs in the NHS are unfilled, and so too in the care home sectors.
It’s part of the reason why, for example, the British government has backed down on making it mandatory for all workers in the NHS and care home sectors to be vaccinated against coronavirus. The initial ruling was that if health workers aren’t jabbed they can’t have a job.
With roughly one-eighth of care home workers not having jabs, the sector faced an existential crisis, one where homes would have to shut because there simply wasn’t enough staff between Brexit and the jabbing requirement, to carry on. In January, the government relented, and changed the rules on that mandatory jabbing requirement.
But that Brexit slogan of taking back control of its borders now puts the government of Boris Johnson in a difficult position with more than two million Ukrainian refugees flooding to western Europe as they fled the conflict in their homeland.
Across western Europe, there is a tremendous outpouring of sympathy for these desperate people, the elderly, women and children.
Most communities have drop off points where clothes, blankets and donations can be made to support the refugees from Ukraine. Every ferry now leaving British ports for harbours in Europe carries vans of relief goods destined to help those most in need.
And there is growing pressure on the UK to do more to help those forced to flee Ukraine.
So far, out of the estimated 2 million forced to leave their Ukrainian homes, villages, towns and cities, only 500 have been allowed to enter the UK.
Priti Patel, the UK’s Home Office minister responsible for immigration, has been stalling. Her department did dispatch a team of officials to France to help with processing the would be refugees to the UK.
It turns out, less than a dozen were sent, and they offered chocolate bars and bags of potato crisps to the refugees, and advised them to travel onwards to Paris or Brussels to have their papers processed. Even then, it’s taking at least two weeks to an initial appointment, and that appointment calendar is being backfilled with each passing hour.
Backbench Conservative MPs are becoming increasingly frustrated at the government’s response to the humanitarian crisis and its tardiness in processing refugees. The Home Office requires new arrivals to have a visa, and this requires biometric scanning to ensure the refugees are not a security risk.
Granted the right to stay
Contrast the UK approach — and frustration — with that being taken by the Republic of Ireland. So far, some 3,000 Ukrainian refugees have made their way to Ireland.
Communities and towns, just like in the UK, have donated generously. But they have also been granted the right to stay, given access to social and health care programmes, and are being provided with access to housing and emergency shelter.
Just like the rest of the EU, it’s an open-door policy. And the difference is being noted by Conservative MPs.
In some quarters there is a sense that many Ukrainians who make their way to Ireland will invariably end up moving to the UK through a back door.
There are no border controls between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK. Nor are their border controls between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. To do so would only infuriate those in Northern Ireland who want the province to remain an integral part of the UK.
But there are also those who believe that the UK should be following the example of the EU, and simply open its borders to Ukrainian refugees. That, of course, opens up a new debate about the wisdom of Brexit and closing borders in the first instance.
The Common Travel Area between the UK and Ireland pre-existed the EU itself, and it’s partially the reason now why Schengen visas to Europe don’t include onward travel to the islands of Great Britain and Ireland.
The situation will only become more exaggerated in the coming weeks. As a member of the EU, Ireland is committed to taking 2 per cent of all Ukrainian refugees.
It’s only a matter of time before it gets out that if you’re a Ukrainian refugee and want to make it to the UK, all you have to do is get to Ireland … where you’ll be welcomed with open arms.