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COVID-19: Has devolution in the UK complicated its response to the coronavirus crisis?

The national flag of the United Kingdom - the Union Jack or Union Flag - flies on a mast.
The national flag of the United Kingdom - the Union Jack or Union Flag - flies on a mast. Copyright Image by Dean Moriarty from Pixabay
Copyright Image by Dean Moriarty from Pixabay
By Emma Beswick
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One country, four governments, with tangible variations in how they have chosen to manage their populations against the virus. It is arguably one of the biggest stress tests for devolution.


The United Kingdom: one country, four governments, all with tangible variations in how they have chosen to manage their coronavirus response.

Arguably, the COVID-19 pandemic, along with Brexit, is one of the biggest stress tests for devolution, which is a relatively new model.

Public services that have played pivotal roles during the pandemic, in particular public health services and education, are the responsibility of the devolved administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, while macroeconomic and fiscal matters are reserved powers handled by the central UK government.

As a result, an effective response to the public health emergency would require all four governments both to take action within their own areas of responsibility and to coordinate their actions.

Why couldn't the governments go it alone?

"It's clear this is an issue that requires a collaborative approach because the health and economic responsibilities of the governments are obviously going to be linked in this," Professor Jim Gallagher, a visiting professor of government at Glasgow University, told Euronews.

He gave the example of the impact of lockdown measures — the responsibility of devolved administrations — on the economy, which in response required the likes of the UK government's furlough scheme, set up by Chancellor Rishi Sunak at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But have they managed this?

"I think at the beginning there was a period when there was more collaboration than has been the case recently," Prof Michael Kenny, director of Cambridge University's Bennett Institute for Public Policy, told Euronews.

The UK and devolved governments released a joint Coronavirus Action Plan in March — a rare government policy paper that was co-branded by the four administrations.

There was also close collaboration on the Coronavirus Act and devolved leaders participated in meetings of the the Civil Contingencies Committee (COBRA), the emergency planning vehicle that the UK government uses.

Where did things come unstuck?

Kenny said this collaboration, particularly in terms of COBRA, was "striking" but added, "quite quickly, not only were there different policy approaches, but the lack of trust between the different governments and leaders began to make things more difficult."

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced in mid-May that lockdown measures were going to be eased, but the three devolved administrations did not, which could be seen as a key moment that signalled cooperation between the governments had begun to dissolve.

Johnson did not clarify that the changes he announced to lockdown rules would only apply in England.

What's more, the change of slogan in efforts to combat the coronavirus was changed from "Stay at Home" to "Stay Alert", with the new tag line disowned by the governments outside Westminster.

"The UK government, effectively, fairly early on, gave up that kind of collaborative model," Kenny said.

Once we began to move into the exit phase, it became clear that the UK government wanted to move faster in terms of removing some of those restrictions.
Prof Michael Kenny
Director, Cambridge University's Bennett Institute for Public Policy

Gallagher, who worked as a civil servant on devolved matters for the UK and Scottish governments as well as advising the "Better Together" campaign during the Scottish independence referendum, agreed on this point, observing that the UK government's approach has become less well-ordered than it was at the beginning.

But Kenny thinks that differences were always apparent between the different parties: "Even in the beginning, there were some different emphases and slightly different approaches, inevitably, because these are different governments that are making decisions about their own territory."

"It looks as if suddenly they were all beginning to go to their own ways but, actually, I think they were always slightly different," he added.

What is motivating the different governments' approaches?

"Political relations between the governments have been difficult," Gallagher explained. "They have each taken a slightly different view. They each have slightly different incentives."


He pointed out that the Scottish government isn't responsible for the macro-economic consequences of the crisis, which affected how First Minister Nicola Sturgeon approached measures.

It has been politically desirable for the Scottish administration to present itself as more cautious and prudent in health terms than the UK government and then to let Westminster take the blame for any economic disruption that these measures may cause, the professor said.

"I think that it's a little harsh to say that whatever Boris Johnson does, she (Sturgeon) does the opposite. Whatever Boris Johnson does, she does the same, but a bit later and slightly different," he added.

The different governments 'are each standing on their dignity. They have each taken a different view. They've got slightly different incentives.'
Prof Jim Gallagher
Visiting professor of government at Glasgow University

He gave the example of Johnson's announcement of the "rule of six" in September, which meant people in England were only allowed to meet in groups of six or less, but the Scottish government defined the rule slightly differently.


But Gallagher does not think Sturgeon is purely playing political games: "I think she is to a substantial degree making her own judgements."

He also says the leader is under pressure from extreme elements in her party to push for a referendum on Scottish independence as soon as possible.

As for the UK government, Kenny thinks it decided the approach it was taking initially could be playing to the advantage of Nicola Sturgeon. 

"There was a clear decision made not to invest so much in trying to take a collaborative approach," he said.


Was policy divergence inevitable?

From the outbreak of the coronavirus in Europe, Kenny said there were important differences, both in terms of the four nations themselves and also the kinds of information and advice they were receiving, which led to differing approaches.

An important factor the Northern Irish government had to consider was its geography — lying on a different land mass to the rest of the UK and sharing a border with the Republic of Ireland.

"There was a big debate over whether having two different jurisdictions or two different approaches to the pandemic was going to be damaging and linked to all kinds of incoherence, say, for people living on one side (of the Irish border) and working on the other side," Dr David Mitchell, assistant professor in conflict resolution and reconciliation at Trinity College Dublin at Belfast, told Euronews.

Although, he says in reality, the north and south of Ireland have in most cases "followed each other" and the relations between the two countries have been "less controversial than we might have expected".


He observed that the Northern Ireland Executive has not followed everything that Westminster has done, which has avoided some conflicts that could have arisen or threats to Irish unity.

There have been one or two moments of real tension and conflict, but actually, between Sinn Fein and the DUP, there's been a fairly successful co-operative approach.
Prof Michael Kenny
Director, Cambridge University's Bennett Institute for Public Policy

Kenny doubled down on this, saying that despite unionists being mindful that they wanted to keep Belfast in step with the UK approach, "there has been a striking degree of cooperation that has been achieved within the Northern Irish Executive", which has a power-sharing arrangement in it.

Practical considerations in Wales, which has a porous border with England, did not appear to be at play to such an extent, with the Welsh Government displaying a more cautious approach from England in exiting lockdown.

"I think that that was quite an important moment because it brought home to many English people probably for the first time the realities of devolution, that there was a government that was entitled to take a different approach in areas affecting public health," Kenny added.


What might future relationships between the governments look like?

Despite their differences, Kenny is of the opinion that the priority of all the governments has been to manage the pandemic as best they can, even if part of their motivation was political.

Gallagher thinks Westminster has been "cloth eared" when it comes to understanding the significance of devolution.

Brexit, which he says is potentially very disruptive in terms of the devolution settlement, is causing relations between the devolved institutions and UK government to be strained and this is having effects on the management of the coronavirus crisis.

The COVID-19 crisis has called attention to the rights of the devolved governments, whether they are respected by the UK government and how decentralisation works.


These questions surrounding devolution will undoubtably come to the fore again as the Brexit process nears a conclusion and the UK government approaches the eleventh hour for reaching a deal with the EU.

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