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Rationing is back because we failed to learn the lessons of Covid

UK supermarkets have introduced limits on fruit and veg amid a supply shortage - NEIL HALL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

UK supermarkets have introduced limits on fruit and veg amid a supply shortage – NEIL HALL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

For Theresa May it was Brexit, while partygate finished Boris Johnson, and Liz Truss was undone by a spectacular revolt in the bond markets. Rishi Sunak may one day look back at this week’s National Farmers’ Union conference in Birmingham as the moment when it became clear that the Tories’ time in charge was well and truly over.

The two-day jamboree got off to a wobbly start for the government, with farming minister Mark Spencer facing tough questions. Sunak himself hardly helped with a brief appearance by video link where he laughably claimed that his participation in “the early morning milking in Wensleydale” had left him with a greater empathy for the plight of Britain’s farmers.

But it was the entrance of Thérèse Coffey’s refusal to accept that the Government was in any way to blame for the current food shortages that left the audience understandably seething. There may be fewer raspberries to go around at the minute, but this was the Environment Secretary blowing a big one back at angry farmers. “We can’t control the weather in Spain,” Coffey declared, perhaps half-wishing she could be magically teleported there, away from audible boos.

The NFU’s main gripe is that if vegetable growers hadn’t been excluded from the Government’s energy support program then the sprawling greenhouses of Kent wouldn’t have been left half-empty and we wouldn’t have seen a return to supermarket rationing. Coffey blames the Spanish climate.

There may be some truth to that, although images of fully stocked greengrocers on the continent suggest otherwise. But a more astute politician would have acknowledged that more could be done to help instead of seeking to deflect blame with glib remarks about the weather. Fierce criticism from former Sainsbury’s boss Justin King won’t have helped her case.

Yet there is a much bigger problem, which is that national resilience has disappeared from the political agenda again when in fact it should have been front and center of government policy the second the pandemic erupted.

The Covid outbreak was quick to expose numerous weaknesses in Britain’s self-sufficiency. Although the national vaccine program was a stunning success in many ways, the NHS was only really able to rely on the homegrown Oxford-AstraZeneca jab at the beginning. As the vaccine effort ramped up, additional supplies were needed from India, and it was soon clear that a widely threatened European blockade risked the delivery of second doses of the Pfizer jab.

Then as the world emerged from lockdown, our reliance on overseas partners was laid bare again as demand for precious materials and microchips outstripped stocks. The ensuing supply shock led to acute shortages of popular consumer goods, essential components, and vital raw materials, and the consequences of this resulting ruinous new inflationary era are still being felt by families on almost every front despite the efforts of central bankers.

The war in Ukraine served as another serious warning, this time of our over-dependence on energy supplies, and not just from unreliable foreign despots but allies closer to home too. Amid all the focus on Putin’s weaponisation of Russian oil and gas, it is easy to forget that France threatened to shut down Jersey’s power supply in response to a row over post-Brexit fishing rights.

But it was the emergence of big gaps on supermarket shelves within weeks of the pandemic erupting that should have prompted a national effort to bolster resilience. The creation of the Covid Recovery Commission, led by Tesco chairman John Allan, was the right idea. From the rubble of the coronavirus, there was a huge opportunity for a reinvention that made us less vulnerable to complex yet fragile global supply chains and the whims of unstable regimes.

But much like Brexit, it was squandered, perhaps because the Government has decided that such a move is incompatible with the free market principles it espouses outside of the European Union. Yet as Allan pointed out, the merits or otherwise of globalization aren’t the issue – shortages are becoming more acute and they demand a proper response from Westminster. Besides, it is perfectly possible to diversify the supply chain at the same time as offering protection and support for UK farmers.

We are far too reliant on a small number of exporters. In the winter months the UK gets around 95pc of its tomatoes and 90pc of its lettuces, mostly from Spain and North Africa. The 90-hectare Thanet Earth project, which produces 450m salad vegetables a year, is impressive but Britain could probably do with many more industrial agriculture complexes like it.

Meanwhile, there are millions of other farmers toiling away in the fields who say they have been left distinctly poorer by the end of EU subsidies, as well as the spiraling costs of energy, fuel, fertilizer and animal feed, which has prevented them from growing more. Excluding vegetable producers from the energy support scheme now looks like an act of stupidity but farmers have been warning for months that the UK is “sleepwalking” into a food crisis.

The failure to learn the lessons of Covid and take food security more seriously is now coming back to bite the Government in such a big way that the Prime Minister effectively stands accused of stealing the nation’s cucumbers.

Farmers are supposed to be “true blues”. If the Tories lose the support of the countryside, they can kiss goodbye to the next election.

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