If the coronavirus pandemic and its subsequent lockdowns has taught us anything, it’s that we can just about scrape by in a supply chain crisis.
But frontline supply chain workers do a lot of heavy lifting to keep things ticking on while the rest of us do the locking down. Many of us spent the first lockdown in our homes without a hint of inconvenience. Amazon Prime, Deliveroo and Ocado made sure of that.
We may have been bored and isolated, but we were also shielded. It was frontline workers who had to deal with the grim realities of keeping the country moving while battling a deadly virus. The pickers, packers, customs workers, freight forwarders, drivers and those delivering final mile fulfilment did not have the option to shield.
The lesson is plain enough. Massive supply chain disruptions can be mitigated, but at a non-trivial human cost.
One study into the long term impact of the pandemic on frontline workers (both medical and non-medical) found that medical workers faced more mental challenges, but also had more support than non-medical workers, who appear to have been an afterthought.
The people dropping off our packages and food orders faced physical health risks, while the mental health side effects of COVID-19 are yet to be diagnosed.
Are we about to repeat the same mistakes as we approach January 1st, when the UK finally leaves the European Union?
A new study suggests we could be.
According to a survey of more than a thousand UK workers conducted in the first week of December 2020, the nation could be facing a mental health crisis as we attempt to deal with the nuts and bolts of trading and consuming as we leave the European Union.
The research, conducted by digital customs clearance platform and supply chain specialists KlearNow, warned of a “customs crunch”.
It found that almost two thirds of consumers are concerned about the mental health of frontline logistics workers such as lorry drivers and shipping workers.
The same study found that logistics workers themselves are also concerned about their own mental wellbeing – 59% said they were concerned for their own mental health and that of their colleagues- but they also have other concerns.
51% expect their job to become more difficult as a result of Brexit and 17% expect their jobs to become significantly more difficult as a direct result of the realities of leaving the EU.
40% say UK businesses are not adequately prepared for post-Brexit trading and 31% fear that UK consumers will suffer as a consequence.
The vast majority of logistics sector workers appear to hold the UK government responsible for this; 82% don’t believe the government’s communications with businesses about Brexit preparation has been clear or helpful.
A locked-down UK still enjoying membership of the EU managed reasonably during the pandemic. Bursts of panic buying aside, consumers were still able to consume. As a nation on the outside of the EU, it may not be so easy.
It’s all to do with getting goods into and out of the country quickly and easily.
Supply chain expert and American Red Cross advisory board member Sam Tyagi, who is the CEO of KlearNow, the firm who commissioned the study cited above, has grave doubts about UK border processes and their impact on frontline workers.
“Customs clearance is the most outdated and high friction part of the global supply chain. A lot of customs entries are still completed with pen and paper. This is unacceptable for such an integral cog in the global supply chain system.”
“Our study demonstrates quite clearly that UK logistics workers are concerned for the mental wellbeing of themselves and their colleagues; a concern shared by almost two thirds of the population. This is especially pronounced given the newfound appreciation consumers found for these workers who kept the UK running during the pandemic.”
“It’s abundantly obvious that as of right now, there simply aren’t enough staff employed at UK borders to handle the increase in workload brought about by Brexit. Our fear is that this will quickly lead to a two-tier system whereby larger importers spending more money on landing their goods are prioritised at the expense of smaller business and their customers.”
“Without the rapid implementation of technology to make customs clearance easier, faster and cheaper, this trend will continue and UK consumers will suffer as a result.”
Of course Tyagi would say that wouldn’t he? His company is offering a digital solution to the inevitable friction that Brexit will introduce to supply chains.
But he also has a point and is not alone in his concern.
Ian Wright, the chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation told MPs in December that Brexit will cause more supply chain disruption than COVID-19.
Speaking of the lack of adequate provisions and mitigations at UK ports, he asked MPs.
“How on earth can traders prepare in this environment?”
And speaking about UK supply chain infrastructure, he said:
“It has done very well over Covid and shoppers will expect the same thing over Brexit, and they may not see it.”
Trade partners in the EU are making their concerns clear to the UK too. The Brexit co-ordinator for the Customs Administration of The Netherlands issued a stark warning to UK businesses.
“If you don’t have your paperwork ready, there is no transport … it’s not an easy message, but it has to be a clear message,” he warned.
The message is indeed clear. UK borders are not ready for Brexit. And while that may cause inconvenience to consumers, for those working on frontline like the drivers sitting in lorry parks in Kent, the customs agents and freight forwarders attempting to work within an outdated system, the impact on productivity and mental health could be huge.