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Analysis: Is COVID-19 further dividing the 'United' Kingdom?

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By Darren McCaffrey, Political Editor
Analysis: Is COVID-19 further dividing the 'United' Kingdom?
Copyright  Duncan McGlynn/AP
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This week, England is slowly getting back to work.

After seven weeks of lockdown, those who can’t work from home have been encouraged by the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, to return.

The English are now allowed to drive beyond their neighbourhoods to exercise and to meet one person, outside their household in the park - with two metres separation, of course. It is two metres in England.

Have you spotted it yet? These rules are England specific, and not UK-wide. That’s because Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are not telling their populations to “Stay Alert”. Rather, they are sticking to “Stay At Home”.

The coronavirus crisis is adding yet more strain to a United Kingdom which, for the best part of a decade, has seemed anything but united. So, why the divergence when all of the UK, like elsewhere in Europe, is attempting to ease its lockdowns?

Well, there is evidence to suggest that the rate of infections - or the “R” number - is slightly higher elsewhere in Britain than in England, which is leading to a more cautious approach. And there have been problems with communication. Scotland’s First Minister said she only learned about the new “Stay Alert” message by reading about it in a national newspaper and not from Downing Street. Ultimately, Nicola Sturgeon concluded that she didn’t know what it meant and that her country would not use it. Instead, she suggested that staying at home was still the best way to protect lives in Scotland.

And it is politics as much as science that is pulling the UK in so many different directions. The devolution of power to the United Kingdom’s nations is relatively new; in fact it only happened two decades ago. And, as time has passed, those parliaments or assemblies have gained more powers, powers they are increasingly willing to use.

Some have suggested that the devolved ministers are only taking different decisions to Westminster to help justify their existence. That seems a tad harsh, but politics certainly is at play here. While the Conservatives and Boris Johnson are in charge of the UK, the main opposition Labour Party controls Wales, Scotland is governed by Scottish Nationalists and Northern Ireland by a broad post-conflict coalition. And so, politically it is in the interests of different parties not to be simply toeing the UK government's line in the midst of a crisis.

And if you couple this with Brexit, Britain has taken a battering.

In 2014, Scotland voted 55-45 per cent to remain inside the UK, but support for separation appears to have risen recently. And with demographic changes and issues with the border post Brexit, many suggest it is only a matter of time before Northern Ireland secedes and rejoins the rest of the island. The coronavirus crisis is changing our world, our politics, our societies. We don’t know its long term effects but for now, Boris Johnson is increasingly looking like the Prime Minister of England rather than the UK.

The more voters get used to that, the more the long term Union seems in doubt.

Darren McCaffrey is Euronews' political editor.

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