As the devolved administrations show increasing confidence in charting their own course, Richard Parry reviews a crucial few days in the UK's response to the virus.
Staying alert is a necessary skill for any politician or adviser, but Boris Johnson's maladroit broadcast on 10 May showed his government's lack of sensitivity to public health as a devolved function. With the economic firepower to deal with the impact of the virus resting at UK level, the devolved administrations had been cautious, knowing that they were part of a 'four eyes' structure of expert advice across the UK, and facing political jeopardy if any divergences of policy appeared to risk worse health and economic outcomes.
This changed once it became clear that the UK Government was set on a one-size-fits-all amendment of the original restrictions that did not reflect geographical patterns of cases. The Scottish Government led the way on 5 May when it issued ”Coronavirus (COVID-19): framework for decision making – further information”. This set out the logic behind the Scottish Government’s conclusion that it was 'almost certain that no significant change will be possible on 7 May and the lockdown will be extended'. There was a sense of detail, cogency and candour absent from UK presentation of the issue (until its White Paper of 11 May "Our Plan to Rebuild"), and the qualifying 'almost' did not last long as Nicola Sturgeon appropriated the 'stay home' slogan.
The document floated some tentative ideas about more socialising in 'bubbles' and sending some children back to school, but these were quickly parked. Charts showed that the key indicators of morbidity were near-flat, that a re-opening of schools might lead to a surge in cases, and that a second peak, with R above 1, might be foreseen for the end of 2020.What had seemed an advantage for Scotland was that lockdown measures had come earlier in relation to the peak than in urban England, but this threatened to be a problem on the other side:
'there is some evidence that the currently [sic] R number in Scotland is slightly above that elsewhere in the UK.....any meaningful variations in the R estimates among the four nations could be a significant factor in co-ordinating decision-making across the UK.'.
It could be suggested that Sturgeon was emboldened to make her pre-emptive strike against Johnson's optimism because polling evidence worldwide shows a risk-averse mood. Left-wing parties in France and Spain, and trade unions everywhere, are framing re-emergence policies as a threat to worker safety, in the interests of business. Far from the political problem being public anger about restrictions on freedom, it is one of a perception that the vulnerable may be forced back into dangerous situations.
Johnson also faces the misfortune of having the highest death toll in Europe, which he has not succeeded in explaining away. This will put him on the defensive for a long time, perhaps forever. His broadcast suggested a late pulling-back from hopes of matching the relaxations in France and Spain long-planned for 11 May. Several formulations were unsatisfactory in terms of clarity of implementation, such as 'driving to other destinations' for 'unlimited exercise', encouragement for manufacturing and construction workers to return to work but discouragement from getting there by public transport ('on your bike' indeed), and the plan 'soon' for 14-day quarantines on most arriving air passengers. The White Paper was more precise but it was a day too late and still showed a disjunction between the analysis of the situation and the justification for the changes now happening.
It was telling that BBC One in Scotland and Wales (but not Northern Ireland) opted out of the network immediately after Johnson's broadcast to present their distinctive national policies. In just a few days devolved politicians had come to realise that they could go their own way in the confidence that comparisons with London on the quality of decision-making and public communication seem to have turned in their favour.
Photo by Number 10 on Flickr