Great Britain

Opinion- Rebecca McQuillan- If Covid has taught Britain one thing, its how devolution works

There was a telling exchange on BBC Newsnight earlier this week.

The former health secretary Jeremy Hunt raised concerns in an interview with Emily Maitlis about the divergent messages given to the public by the devolved administrations and the Government in London.

Should the devolved nations not go their own way then? asked Maitlis.

“They have the legal right to go their own way but I don’t think it’s helpful for people on the basis of the same evidence to be coming up with different decisions, because I think it just confuses the public,” said Hunt.

The assumption seemed to be that if anyone needed to change tack, it was the devolved administrations. He wouldn’t be drawn on whether he thought Nicola Sturgeon’s wider constitutional agenda was influencing her decision-making.

Inadvertently, this brief interview highlighted how differently devolution is still viewed by those who have direct experience of it and those who view it instead down a telescope from Westminster. Jeremy Hunt claims having variant messages from different administrations is undesirable and more effort should be made to unify those messages. But it’s not much of an argument when he simply ignores the valid public health reasons for the devolved nations’ decision-making.

No one would deny that simple messages are more effective than varying advice, but that aim has to be balanced against other considerations, like the need to act fast to slow transmission rates and ultimately save lives.

Ms Sturgeon was advised that household visiting was a major transmission route and that ending socialising between households was important to help slow the increase of Covid nationwide, as it was already doing in the west of Scotland. Sure, she could have rung up Michelle and Arlene in Belfast, and agreed with them that they should all sit tight until Boris was ready to propose similar restrictions for England.

But how long might that have taken? How much might the spread of Covid have accelerated in the mean time? How many lives might ultimately have been put at risk by the delay?

Ms Sturgeon is a highly strategic politician and only the hopelessly naïve would imagine that she has failed to appreciate the political advantage to her and her cause in taking a different tack from Westminster on Covid (often only slightly different, it must be said). But it would be going too far to suggest that she is guided in her public health decisions by the politics of independence. We don’t need to look for such a cynical explanation when there is another one staring us in the face: she is Scotland’s elected leader, with responsibility for public health, and would face a pretty swift reckoning with public opinion if she were thought to be following Westminster instead of prioritising Scotland’s needs.

Critics blame her for going her own way; the real outcry would arise here if she were not prepared to go her own way.

The real test of what guides her decision-making is surely this: what would a Labour, LibDem, Green or even Tory first minister do in this situation? With a care home transmission scandal behind them and a public inquiry ahead, they too, we can safely assume, would be acting on the basis of transmission patterns in Scotland, not waiting to see what Westminster agreed to.

After 20 years of devolution, different messaging from the devolved administrations is something that the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are used to.

The ban on smoking in public places came in here first, the drink-drive limit was lowered in Scotland before the rest of the UK and Scotland brought in a law on the minimum unit pricing of alcohol before other nations of the UK, to name but three examples. Those measures were evidence of devolution in action; so are the current lockdown restrictions. There’s little sign that Scots are struggling to accept the differences.

Streamlined messaging is not even possible in this pandemic. Within England, as in Scotland and Wales, there have had to be mini lockdowns. In August, you could go round your friend’s house in Liverpool but not in Manchester. In September, you could visit your relatives in Edinburgh but not in Glasgow. Frustrating and upsetting? For some, yes. Confusing? A bit. But these decisions were made by the Westminster and Scottish governments respectively for good reasons; to pre-empt the need for a blanket lockdown that would put people’s social and economic life into deep freeze.

It will come as news to no one that Westminster and Whitehall have a long-standing mindset problem when it comes to devolution. This is not sneering contempt, in many cases, but just a lack of lived experience. The mother of all parliaments has sailed on over decades troubled by very little in the way of reform, while Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland now have modern parliaments close to home elected by relatively proportional means. No wonder there is a difference of perspective. There have been signs with the current UK Government of a desire to set limits on the boundaries of devolution and even to encroach upon it, as if to show who’s really boss. If that’s where you’re coming from, then Nicola Sturgeon’s independent-mindedness on Covid must seem like a nuisance, but it’s a view that is backwards-looking and will ultimately have to change.

With Covid restrictions, where Scotland and Northern Ireland have led, the UK Government is likely to follow. The Chief Medical Officer for England, Professor Chris Whitty, is said to agree with his Scottish counterpart Gregor Smith that banning household visits is necessary. Indeed, England might already have taken this step had Boris Johnson not faced opposition on his own backbenches.

Yesterday, the First Minister wrote to the Prime Minister urgently requesting four-nation talks on tightening the restrictions further, citing “a significant strand of scientific opinion” that tougher measures were needed to get the R number down.

And yes, no doubt there a bit of politics in that – everyone wants to be setting the pace instead of playing catch up.

But if it works and the virus is held in check as the nights draw in, no one will care who did it first.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

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