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A failure to explain difference in plans will undermine the four-nation response to coronavirus

As the four nation lockdown exit strategy runs into difficulties, unmanaged divergence in approaches to easing the lockdown could lead to problems

As the four nation lockdown exit strategy runs into difficulties, Akash Paun says unmanaged divergence in approaches to easing the lockdown could lead to problems

As the UK takes its first tentative steps towards leaving the lockdown, divisions between the UK and devolved governments have begun to appear. Disagreement over the slogan used to communicate with the public – the devolved administrations have rejected the UK government’s ‘Stay Alert’ message and retained the “Stay at home, save lives, protect the NHS” formulation – is symbolic of deeper disquiet over Boris Johnson’s plans for easing the lockdown.

A new IfG paper, published last week, set out the importance of maintaining a four nation strategy which accepts that slightly different approaches may be taken by the UK and devolved administrations to ease the lockdown. A small level of divergence is not a cause for concern, and in the case of advice over outdoor recreational activities – now permitted in England but not elsewhere in the UK – and proposed school opening dates, this is already happening.

However, the four governments must work closely together to share information, coordinate public announcements, and make sure any differences in the rules – and the reasons for those differences – are consistently communicated. Failure to do so could lead to unmanaged divergence, public confusion and an erosion of public consent.

There are legitimate reasons for different approaches within the UK – but limits to their extent

Public health, social distancing regulations and school closures are all devolved matters. All four governments are clear that they will base decisions on the evidence, and in particular on the ‘R’ value that signals how fast the disease is spreading within a given population. This varies across the country, and draws on a range of modelling. The devolved governments have stated that the ‘R’ value appears to be slightly higher in their territory than in England, which would support their case for a slower exit from lockdown.

In addition, the different governments may reach different judgements on the appropriate trade-offs between public health and economic concerns, and between public health and personal freedom. Specific consideration might also be given to economic sectors with greater local importance – such as fisheries in Scotland. And in Northern Ireland, there may be particular reasons to align with decisions taken in Dublin. In normal times, it is estimated that more than 30,000 people cross the Irish border every day, so differing regulations on either side of the border may be hard to enforce and justify.

In practice, however, there are big constraints on how far the devolved nations can choose to differ. The Treasury controls the big schemes for supporting furloughed workers, the self-employed, and businesses across the UK. Once those fiscal taps are turned off, the devolved nations will find it hard to maintain lockdown restrictions, even if that is their preference. Likewise, the Home Office will be responsible for enforcing planned new restrictions on border entry in all parts of the UK.

The UK government and the devolved administrations are failing to communicate their plans

The limit of Westminster’s power, and therefore the extent to which the devolved governments can diverge, has not been clearly communicated to the public. This risks creating confusion about what people should and should not do, which rules apply where, and why differences exist.

And if the differences in rules are not explained, then they could be seen as arbitrary or unfair. This, in turn, could lead to reduced compliance. For instance, Boris Johnson’s new plan says people may “drive to other destinations”, but this rule applies only England. This means people could face arrest for crossing the border from England to Wales or Scotland for recreational activities, or travelling to work in non-essential sectors.

UK ministers, including Boris Johnson in his televised statement, have appeared reluctant to make plain whether their planned changes to guidance and law apply UK-wide or, as is often the case, only in England. It can be easier to speak in vague terms about “the country” than to spell out whether you are acting for the UK or only for England; a less charitable interpretation is that the UK government deliberately allows confusion as a way to assert de facto responsibility for decision-making across the UK and to put pressure on the devolved administrations to follow suit.

On the other hand, the devolved governments should not seek political advantage, either by playing up minor differences with Westminster or – as has sometimes appeared to happen – by seeking to pre-empt UK government announcements. They could also be clearer with their own voters that costs for keeping businesses and workers afloat during the crisis is being picked up by the UK government – and this, rather than the particular slogans adopted by any of the governments, will have a huge bearing on when people return to work across the UK.

Striking a balance between coordination and divergence will become ever more important

A coordinated four-nation approach to coronavirus remains in the interests of all parties – the virus does not respect borders. The devolved governments have emphasised their support for a coordinated UK-wide approach, but nor are they willing to allow the UK government to take unilateral decisions in devolved areas.

Striking a balance will be ever more important as the exit strategies are played out. A breakdown of partnership working could undermine the effectiveness of the government response in the next phase of the crisis. For example, failure to work in partnership with the devolved governments could undermine the planned roll-out of a UK-wide contact-tracing system in the next phase of the coronavirus response. The UK government is leading the development of an app for this purpose, but the Scottish government has expressed caution about whether to recommend its use in Scotland.

The prime minister, and his government, must consult properly on their plans, build a UK-wide consensus, and communicate differences clearly to the public. In turn, the devolved administrations should clearly explain why they are diverging – and where they cannot. The UK government should not be waiting for the devolved governments to set out their exit plans; but nor can it simply demand that the first ministers of the devolved nations completely follow the UK prime minister’s lead.




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