The UK’s four-nation lockdown exit strategy could create confusion amongst the public and lead to non-compliance of guidance and rules if not communicated transparently.
This report says there may be legitimate reasons – such as evidence that the coronavirus risk has fallen more in certain parts of the UK – for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to move at different speeds in lifting the lockdown.
Because health is a devolved matter, UK ministers cannot simply enforce a UK-wide approach. A co-ordinated exit strategy would be preferable. But a co-ordinated approach does not mean a uniform approach, and a UK-wide strategy is not the same as a UK government strategy. The devolved governments will also be involved in taking key decisions.
If plans diverge across the four nations, then UK ministers will need to be clearer in how they communicate their plans to the public. There has already been confusion over whether certain policies and announcements – for example on free school meals and testing targets – apply across the UK or only in England. And Scotland has already diverged from Westminster by recommending the use of face coverings in certain circumstances.
There is also a danger that variable restrictions could generate a sense of unfairness and undermine compliance. This would be especially problematic if there is any suggestion of divergence on the big decisions – such as when to lift the ‘stay at home’ requirement for the public, or when to allow different types of business to reopen.
The report also argues that:
- Significant policy differences on each side of the Irish border could result in health and economic problems – meaning Northern Ireland could choose to align some of its exit plans with the Republic of Ireland rather than Great Britain.
- Any variation between the nations should be based on shared evidence and transparency about how decisions are being taken. There should not be accidental divergence of rules within the UK.
- Reliance on Whitehall capacity and schemes led by the UK government, such as the contact-tracing app, are likely to limit the scope for significant policy differences.