Major public services affected by the pandemic, in particular public health services and education, are the responsibility of the devolved administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. In the case of Scotland and Northern Ireland, policing and justice matters are also devolved.
Existing emergency powers to deal with the spread of infection are set out in different pieces of legislation for the four nations. In England and Wales, powers are provided by the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 (as amended by the Health Protection Act 2008). Similar powers are provided by the Public Health etc. (Scotland) Act 2008 and the Public Health Act (Northern Ireland) 1967.
As a result, an effective response to the public health emergency requires all four governments both to take action within their own areas of responsibility and to coordinate their actions.
The Coronavirus Act 2020 conferred new powers on devolved ministers in areas such as health, education and justice. For example, the Act empowers devolved ministers to provide an indemnity to medical staff for criminal negligence cases, and to temporarily close educational establishments. The Act was passed with the consent of the devolved legislatures in accordance with the Sewel Convention.
Ministers in the three devolved nations moved swiftly to use these powers, making new regulations to tackle the pandemic. The regulations in the three devolved nations were initially similar in scope to those made for England by UK ministers, although they have since been amended in different ways. They placed restrictions on movement and public gatherings and require a wide range of premises and businesses to close.
The Scottish government also introduced additional legislation, the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act, to respond to the pandemic. This increased protections for tenants to prevent evictions; allowed participants in court proceedings to appear by video link; extended the time limits for criminal proceedings; and, provided powers to release some prisoners early. The Act also relaxes planning and licencing rules and provides short-term protection for debtors.
What mechanisms are in place for co-ordination between the UK government and devolved administrations?
The UK and devolved governments have coordinated their response to the pandemic through a number of intergovernmental fora. Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, Mark Drakeford, the first minister of Wales, Arlene Foster, the first minister of Northern Ireland and Michelle O’Neill, the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, have participated in meetings of the Civil Contingencies Committee (COBR) chaired by the prime minister.
Ministers from the devolved administrations also attended meetings of five new ministerial implementation groups (MIGs) that were established to look at specific aspects of the coronavirus response.
However, both COBR and the MIGs had ceased to operate by early June. In place of these, the UK government established two new cabinet committees to co-ordinate its response to coronavirus, but following the publication of details of the membership of these new committees, it appears that ministers from the devolved administrations will not be involved.
Each of the devolved administrations has a chief medical officer (CMO) and a chief scientific adviser. They work with Chris Whitty, the CMO to the UK government, and Patrick Vallance, the government chief scientific adviser, to provide coordinated advice to government departments in all four nations.
Expert scientific advisory groups are convened at a UK level and provide advice to the CMOs of the four nations, to health authorities in the devolved administrations, and to the devolved governments directly. These include the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG), an expert committee of the UK Department of Health and Social Care, the Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens, and the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling.
In the early phase of the crisis, the four governments closely co-ordinated their response; the UK-wide action plan that was jointly produced by the four administrations and published on 3 March. The Coronavirus Act, which received Royal Assent on 25 March, was likewise preceded by close consultation and joint working between the UK and devolved governments.
On 23 March, when the prime minister announced tighter rules about the purposes for which people could leave their homes. This announcement was immediately followed by similarly worded statements by the first ministers of Scotland and Wales. In this phase, there were small differences between the four governments, but these were mostly short-lived and a matter of timing rather than substance. For instance, the Scottish first minister advised against gatherings of over 500 people days before the UK government, and the different nations announced the closure of schools and the suspension of jury trials at slightly different points.
However, as the UK has started to move out of lockdown the four governments have each taken their own approach to lifting restrictions. Each published their own plan for reopening the economy, with Northern Ireland and England moving at a faster pace, for example by opening non-essential retail and pubs and restaurants, before Scotland and Wales.
The four governments have continued to co-ordinate in other areas such as on coronavirus testing, although each government remains responsible for testing in their area, and some differences, for example in the timing of the launch of test-and-trace strategies, have arisen.
The UK government announced two major spending packages in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Where this spending is for England, the devolved governments receive additional money through the Barnett formula, which is calculated on the basis of population.
On 11 March 2020, chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak announced a £12bn plan to support public services, individuals and businesses affected by Covid-19.
This included £5bn additional funding for devolved matters such as the NHS and other public services, a one-year business rates holiday, and a £2.2bn grant scheme for small businesses in England.
The Treasury also announced that the devolved administrations will receive a total of £1.5bn in additional funding through the Barnett formula, comprising £780 million for Scotland, £475 million for Wales, and £260 million for Northern Ireland.
The UK government subsequently announced an expanded package of financial support for businesses in England, which resulted in further Barnett consequentials for the devolved nations. The Scottish Parliament Information Centre has calculated that Scotland should now receive a total of £3.7bn as a result of measures announced at Westminster. This implies that Wales and Northern Ireland would be expected to receive £2.2bn and £1.2bn respectively.
In theory, money provided to the devolved administrations via the Barnett formula can be used for any devolved function, but most is expected to be allocated to responding to Covid-19. For instance, the governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have all announced their own schemes for supporting small businesses affected by the pandemic, and have followed England in extending business rates relief to all leisure, retail and hospitality businesses. The Scottish government has also pledged to match English levels of support for the NHS and local government.
The Treasury has also created several UK-wide financial support schemes, including the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, to partially fund the salaries of ‘furloughed’ workers, an expansion in entitlement to Statutory Sick Pay, support for the self-employed, and financial support for larger businesses affected by the economic slowdown. These do not trigger funding for the devolved administrations but people and businesses in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have benefitted directly.
As of the end of May, there had been 8.7 million workers furloughed, of which 6.5 million of which are employed in England, around 630,000 in Scotland, 320,000 in Wales and 210,00 in Northern Ireland. Claims made under the scheme to that point cost a total of £17.5 billion, but the final cost is expected to be about three times as high.
At the end of May, self-employed individuals in Scotland had made 146,000 claims to the Self Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) totalling £425m; in Wales 102,000 claims for £273m had been made and in Northern Ireland 69,000 claims for £198m had been submitted.
Some important functions relating to the coronavirus response are also devolved within England. For instance, Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, is responsible for the Metropolitan Police and the London Transport system, both of which have been substantially affected by the pandemic. Local authorities also have responsibility for some schools; many took the decision not to open them on 1 June as asked to do so by the UK government. On 11 June, only 67% of schools were open to the recommended year groups, although this was an increase from 52% from the week before.
The mayor of London attended meetings of COBR i from 16 March onwards, but Mayors representing other regions have not been invited to join.
Other metro mayors have led efforts to coordinate the local response to the crisis. For instance, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority has established a Covid-19 Emergency Committee, which is chaired by Andy Burnham, the Greater Manchester mayor, who also has responsibility for the police service and joint responsibility for the NHS in Greater Manchester.
Scottish government, £2.2 billion for business, 18 March 2020, www.gov.scot/news/gbp-2-2-billion-for-business
Business Wales, COVID-19: Support for Business, https://businesswales.gov.wales/coronavirus-advice/
NI Business Info, Coronavirus: £10,000 SmallBusiness Support Grant Scheme, 29 June 2020, www.nibusinessinfo.co.uk/content/coronavirus-business-support-grant-schemes
Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme statistics: June 2020, www.gov.uk/government/statistics/coronavirus-job-retention-scheme-statistics-june-2020
Self-Employment Income Support Scheme statistics: June 2020, www.gov.uk/government/statistics/self-employment-income-support-scheme-statistics-june-2020
- Attendance in education and early years settings during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak – summary of returns to 11 June, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/892528/Attendance_during_the_coronavirus_COVID-19_outbreak___summary_of_returns_to_11_June.pdf