One thing that has very quickly become apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic is that nobody quite knows what the role of the devolved governments is when it comes to tackling the coronavirus. Does what Boris Johnson announces apply to all four of the nations of the UK? Can Nicola Sturgeon overrule London? How can Mark Drakeford choose to disregard the latest government advertising campaign? Hopefully this article will be able to answer all of those questions and give a detailed breakdown of how each of the four governments within the United Kingdom are dealing with the crisis.
Devolution: A Background
When Tony Blair came to power in 1997, one of his key domestic priorities was devolution. This, he reasoned, would be enough of a carrot to help subside the more nationalist tendencies in Wales and Scotland whilst also being enough of a stick to prompt said nationalists to realise that this was as far as he would go over federalisation. Clearly the majority of Scottish Parliament seats being held by the SNP, calls for a second Scottish independence referendum and the increasing popularity of Welsh independence have since proved him wrong. Regardless, 1999 saw the creation of the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament and both quickly elected Labour governments (perhaps unsurprisingly given the popularity of ‘New Labour’) albeit both propped up by the Liberal Democrats.
Fast forward a decade and the first cracks began to appear. The 2007 Scottish Parliament election returned the SNP as the biggest party under former-leader Alex Salmond and, following the 2007 Welsh Assembly election, Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru entered the executive for the first time. Whilst Wales’ flirtation with Plaid in government ended at the 2011 Welsh Assembly election, the SNP have remained in office in Scotland; ensuring that Scotland’s Government has been at odds with its United Kingdom counterpart since the Conservatives swept into power in 2010. Despite this, more and more powers have continued to be devolved over the years, especially to Scotland in the aftermath of the independence referendum. Devolved governments now have the power to enact law over a wide brief of policies including health, education and (in Scotland) justice.
Northern Ireland tells a slightly different story. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 established the Northern Ireland Assembly a year before either of its Celtic neighbours. A unique power-sharing agreement means that the Executive of Northern Ireland is never controlled by a single party. In its initial years, this took the form of a four party-government. The unionist UUP and nationalist SDLP took the top two jobs, although nowadays they have largely been replaced by the DUP and Sinn Fein respectively. The current Northern Ireland Executive contains representatives from five separate parties, further enforcing the slightly wobbly foundations that the Assembly was built upon.
One of the key policy areas devolved to Holyrood, Cardiff Bay and Stormont is health. This means that each devolved government has its own Health Minister and its own Public Health organisation. One of the by-products of devolution is the reduction in responsibilities for the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. A title currently held by Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State used to have the power to coordinate health policy across the United Kingdom; yet with the newly established devolved administrations, the Secretary of State’s role is largely limited to the administration of England’s NHS. As of May 2020, the following are the Health Ministers found in the devolved administrations alongside the UK Secretary of State:
- Matt Hancock MP (Conservative) – Secretary of State for Health and Social Care
- Vaughan Gething MS (Welsh Labour) – Wales
- Jeane Freeman MSP (Scottish National Party) – Scotland
- Robin Swann MLA (Ulster Unionist Party) – Northern Ireland
As you can see, each of the devolved regions is governed by a different party, making finding a consensus an even harder task that it would usually be. In addition to this, each nation of the UK has its own considerations when it comes to taking action on the coronavirus, making a so-called ‘four-state action plan’ practically impossible. So whilst I hope this (rather lengthy) introduction explains why Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are able to diverge from what the UK Government decides, the following sections should help explain what each government has done in regards to the pandemic.
I debated calling this section ‘United Kingdom’ as, of course, England doesn’t have its own devolved government. This can largely be explained in two points; firstly the fact that House of Commons and the House of Lords is based in London and secondly, due to something called ‘English Votes for English Laws’ (or EVEL). EVEL essentially allows for any legislation that applies solely to England to be passed with a majority of English MPs only; essentially dispelling with the MPs for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland regardless of the parties who hold these seats. This was implemented by David Cameron shortly after he won a Conservative majority in 2015.
As mentioned above, the UK Government, and by extension the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, can only really coordinate policy that concerns NHS England and Public Health England; including the measures surrounding lockdown. The Prime Minister first announced the series of lockdown measures on March 23, nominally covering the entirety of the United Kingdom but legally, his announcement only applied to England. Despite this, a cross-nation advertising campaign encouraging people to ‘Stay Home: Save Lives’ was launched and, with a few exceptions detailed below, the same advice applied to all four countries within the UK. Before lockdown officially began, schools were announced to be shutting by March 20, the Welsh Education Minister Kirsty Williams being the first of the British Education Ministers to announce such a measure. All four countries followed suit. Similar measures, affecting the hospitality and retail sectors, were soon announced and were implemented across the United Kingdom, partly due to the inclusion of the devolved First Ministers in COBR meetings.
There were a few variations between the advice offered by Public Health England and their Scottish/Welsh counterparts but it wasn’t until May 10 that restrictions began to drastically differ between England and the rest of the country. The Prime Minister announced the relaxation of certain lockdown rules, including the ability to take part in non-exercise activities in public spaces, the allowance of driving to places of exercise and the allowing of unlimited trips outside. They also announced a new advertising campaign, ditching ‘Stay Home: Save Lives’ for a slightly more woolly ‘Stay Alert: Save Lives’. The latter was fundamentally rejected by all three devolved governments who will continue to use the initial campaign. Further advice announced on May 11 suggested face-masks should now be worn on public transport and in shops.
Nicola Sturgeon, Scottish First Minister, largely began in lockstep with the UK Government, but has since divulged in recent weeks. Unlike Johnson, Sturgeon has refused to relax lockdown rules, instead reinforcing the message that Scots should stay home. Following a slightly embarrassing affair involving the now-former Chief Medical Officer Catherine Calderwood and visits to a second home, Sturgeon has been on record many a time to enforce that this is not a situation she wants to hurry out of. There have also been suggestions from the Scottish Government that the introduction of face masks may be necessary when Scottish society opens back up; initially placing her at odds with the messages that emanated from the UK Government.
Like England, the one-exercise-per-day limit will be quashed from May 11, however this does not extend to sunbathing, picnics or other non-exercise based activities that are now exempt from England’s lockdown. The Scottish Government is not encouraging workers who cannot work at home to return to work; there have also been suggestions that it is unlikely Scottish schools will reopen to any peoples before the end of the year. Sturgeon has said that it is likely that the different parts of the UK will reopen at different times, depending on the severity of the pandemic in different areas.
The First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, announced a new three-week lockdown over the weekend. Like Scotland and England, the once-per-day limit on exercise ended on May 11, with garden centres, libraries and waste disposal centres given the green light to begin preparations to open once more. Welsh people will not be able to travel via cars to places of exercise like their English neighbours, nor will sunbathing or other non-exercise activities be permitted in Welsh parks. Despite saying that he didn’t expect Welsh schools to open in June, a spokesperson for the First Minister later clarified that the official Welsh Government line was that schools will not reopen before June 1.
A lot has been made about the capabilities of the Welsh testing system. With the Welsh Government reluctant to commit to testing in care homes, a position they later reversed, and a slightly bizarre episode involving Public Health England allegedly preventing a contract to provide more test kits to Wales from being signed, the number of daily tests in Wales has been well below the now-abandoned targets set. New test centres across Wales have been opened in order to drive up the testing capability but a “lack of demand” has meant few tests are being carried out.
The initial lockdown measures implemented in Northern Ireland will stay in place for another three weeks. First Minister Arlene Foster announced over the weekend that the Northern Irish Executive, made up of a power-sharing agreement between her DUP and Sinn Fein, will announce a blueprint out of lockdown this week. For now, the official message in Northern Ireland remains ‘Stay Home: Save Lives’ and it’s widely expected that similar nuanced changes to lockdown measures will be announced in the coming days.