The coronavirus outbreak has been the most significant public health and economic challenge that Scotland has faced in recent times, with lockdown restrictions having a huge impact on individuals and businesses nationwide. Unprecedented interventions have been required from both the UK and Scottish Governments to mitigate the social and economic impact.
At the heart of the response to the pandemic has been the need for effective coordination and relations between all four nations of the United Kingdom, particularly given that key policy areas, such as health, are devolved. We analyse and evaluate the nature of the joint working relationship and what has become known as the four-nations approach. In particular, we examine the dynamic between the UK and Scottish Governments from the start of the outbreak.
Without doubt, the response to the crisis has thrown up new ways of intergovernmental working and has further tested intergovernmental structures that were already under strain. The use of these structures to co-ordinate policy responses have varied throughout the pandemic. Familiar mechanisms for intergovernmental relations (IGR), such as the Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC), have not been used, with intergovernmental discussion primarily taking place through the Government’s Civil Contingencies Committee (COBRA) and five new Ministerial Implementation Groups (MIGs). Scientific cooperation has taken place between the Chief Medical Officers and Chief Scientific Advisors of the four nations, the UK Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and the Scottish Government’s COVID-19 Advisory Group.
There has been unprecedented coordination through the four-nations approach. From the early stages of the pandemic, the devolved administrations had input into the UK-wide Joint Action Plan, were consulted on the measures contained in the UK Coronavirus Act and have taken part in a UK-wide scheme to procure Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Initially, any policy differences between the four nations were minimal and a matter of timing rather than fundamental divergence.
However, there have been policy differences since the second review of lockdown restrictions in early May. Each published its own plan for easing the rules and reopening parts of the economy. Messaging in England, but delivered at a UK-wide level, changed from ‘Stay at Home’ to ‘Stay Alert’ without the First Minister of Scotland being told what the new message would be in advance. From this point onwards, England often moved at a faster pace than the rest of the UK in terms of its messaging, the activities permitted and the businesses that could now reopen. We recognise good reason for the four nations taking different measures in accordance with their needs, however, this divergence coincided with the main mechanisms for cooperation, COBRA and the MIGs, ceasing to operate. We note evidence that suggests this has caused divergence to happen almost by accident and led to confusion about how decisions are made.
We conclude that the UK Government has failed to make clear when its messaging applies only to England. We call on Ministers to outline how they intend to address such failings and how they plan to distribute future messages.
We are concerned that MIGs and COBRA have ceased to meet in the context of the pandemic and that devolved nations now appear to be consulted informally rather than through formalised, minuted mechanisms. The Government should outline how it has discussed decisions with the devolved nations and how it has guaranteed regular communication thus far, why the MIGs and COBRA have ceased to meet and what consultation there was with the devolved administrations prior to this decision. Ministers must outline their plans for the coronavirus Cabinet Committees, [Covid-19 Operations Committee and COVID-19 Strategy Committee] and how those will involve and incorporate the priorities of the devolved nations. The fact that the Joint Ministerial Committee has not been used throughout the course of the pandemic raises questions about the suitability of existing intergovernmental structures in crisis situations and what it means for the future of intergovernmental relations. The Government should justify its preference for the use of COBRA and the MIGs over the JMC thus far and explain how it will incorporate concerns about IGR structures into its ongoing Review of Intergovernmental Relations.
Evidence heard on the role of the Office of the Secretary of State for Scotland (Scotland Office) shows that Scottish and UK Ministerial counterparts prefer to communicate directly, rather than via the Scotland Office. This means there is a continued risk of it finding itself out the loop on UK-Scotland issues relating to the pandemic. The Government must specify and define a clear role for the Scotland Office in the context of COVID-19 and similar UK-wide emergencies. We think there is potential for it to play a formal coordination role in ensuring that relevant ministers in the UK and Scottish Governments are meeting regularly and this may help fill the ‘vacuum’ in ministerial level communication between the UK and Scottish Governments that we heard described.
Communication on a scientific level appears to have been regular and consistent between the four nations. However, it is unclear whether the advice given by SAGE and the Scottish Government’s COVID-19 Advisory Group to their respective Governments has been the same throughout the pandemic. It is difficult to assess these concerns due to issues around transparency. The UK and Scottish Governments should provide details of the procedures and processes used by their advisory groups for providing scientific advice. In addition, both Governments should consider increasing the number of ‘on the ground’ public health officials in key advisory roles to complement the expertise of academics.
The Government’s Joint Biosecurity Centre has been broadly welcomed by the witnesses we heard from, however, some questions around the role of the Centre, and how the devolved nations will feed in, remain. The Government should clarify this and provide an assessment of the benefits of establishing such a Centre for all four nations.
The coronavirus pandemic has inflicted a devastating blow to Scotland, both from a health and economic perspective and has had a profound impact on devolution. The long-term impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on the relationship between the four Governments of the UK are yet to be seen. We will continue to observe intergovernmental developments, whilst continuing to press for effective intergovernmental structures.
Published: 23 July 2020