By JILL LAWLESS, Associated Press
MANCHESTER, England (AP) – UK Treasury Chief Rishi Sunak on Monday pledged to build an economy based on ‘good work, better skills and higher wages’ as the ruling Tory party tried ignore the UK’s economic turmoil as the growing pains of a prosperous and self-sustaining post-Brexit economy.
Sunak touted the UK’s low unemployment rate, below 5%, as a sign he was putting pandemic disruption behind him. He said now that Britain has left the European Union, it will embrace “the agility, flexibility and freedom offered by Brexit” to create a vibrant, high-tech economy.
For some, Sunak’s optimism in a speech at a conference of the ruling Tories in Manchester, northern England, struck a discordant note. It has come as the combination of coronavirus and Brexit is sending shock waves through the UK economy, with soldiers enlisted to alleviate fuel shortages and businesses scrambling to secure enough staff.
Since the last Conservative conference two years ago, the party has won a huge parliamentary majority under Prime Minister Boris Johnson. But Britain has also been hit by a coronavirus pandemic that has claimed more than 136,000 lives in the UK, the second death toll in Europe after Russia. The country also left the EU last year, ending its seamless economic integration with a trade bloc of nearly half a billion people.
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In recent weeks, a shortage of truck drivers, due to factors such as the disruption of the pandemic and a post-Brexit exodus of European workers, has scolded UK supply chains, leaving shelves empty in supermarkets, Chicken-free fast food chains and fuel-free gas pumps. Dozens of soldiers began driving tankers on Monday after more than a week of gasoline shortages.
A major factor is post-Brexit immigration rules which mean EU citizens can no longer live and work visa-free in Britain, as they could when the UK was a member of the bloc. Besides trucking, staff shortages are plaguing hotels, bars and restaurants, sectors that once depended heavily on European workers. Some Manchester hotels, where thousands of curators meet until Wednesday, have emailed their guests apologizing for being understaffed.
Agriculture has also been hit hard, with slaughterhouses saying they are sorely lacking butchers. Angry farmers, some dressed as pigs, greeted Tory delegates outside the conference center on Monday, demanding that the government “keep our bacon.”
“The pigs are saved,” said Vicky Scott, a pig farmer from East Yorkshire, in the north of England. “There are farmers who have to decide which pigs to kill on the farm, which is barbaric. (They go) to the landfill, complete waste. It is shameful.
Like businesses across the economy, UK farmers are urging the government to let in more European workers to alleviate shortages.
Johnson did this for truckers and poultry farmers, providing 5,000 emergency visas to foreign carriers and 5,500 visas to chicken and turkey workers. But the government has resisted easing restrictions on what it calls low-skilled workers, saying Britons should be trained for the jobs.
“The way forward for our country is not to simply pull the big lever of unchecked immigration,” Johnson said on Sunday. He said Britain was ending “a broken model of the British economy which was based on low wages, low skills and chronic low productivity.”
Some economists point out that more immigration does not automatically mean lower wages. And many conservatives are worried about the impact on voters’ wallets of a recently announced tax hike to fund health care and social services, rising energy bills due to the global surge in fuel costs. natural gas prices and reduced social benefits for millions of people in Britain. this week.
Sunak, whose treasury has spent billions over the past 18 months to support workers and businesses as coronavirus lockdowns put the economy on ice, has announced plans to return to a more conservative agenda on the plan budgetary. He highlighted programs to help young people get skilled jobs and more investment to make Britain a technological and scientific “superpower”.
Sunak said “a renewed corporate culture, a willingness to take risks and be imaginative” would make Britain one of the fastest growing economies in the world.
Farmers like Scott say these long-term plans are of little use to them now.
“I agree that we should upgrade the skills of our UK workforce,” she said. “But we should have done it months ago, years ago.”
Follow all of AP’s stories on post-Brexit developments at https://apnews.com/hub/Brexit.
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