Coronavirus and Scotland: Interim Report on Intergovernmental Working Contents

3Effectiveness of intergovernmental working during COVID-19

19.In this Chapter, we comment on the relationship between the UK and Scottish Governments during the crisis so far. We consider the extent of a four-nations approach, including the implications of policy divergence, and the effectiveness of the mechanisms and structures used to facilitate joint working between the UK and devolved administrations.

Four-nations approach and initial intergovernmental communication

20.For the purposes of this report, we define the four-nations approach as the joint working and cooperation between the United Kingdom’s four Governments in their response to Coronavirus, including on where they do and do not wish to share a common response.

21.It has been clear that from the very start, there have been commendable attempts to facilitate close working relationships between the four nations. Writing for the Constitution Unit, UCL, Akash Paun noted that there had been “close working” between the four nations on the Coronavirus Act, which was: “drafted with significant devolved input before being passed at Westminster with devolved consent under the Sewel Convention”.63

22.We also saw the publication of the Four-Nations Action Plan on 3 March 2020. The Plan was co-signed by the UK, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Governments, and laid out a strategy for a four-nations approach. The document stated that the Plan would do the following:

Recognising the respective roles and responsibilities of the UK government and devolved administrations, this document sets out what the UK as a whole has already done – and plans to do further – to tackle the current coronavirus outbreak.64

23.In his written evidence the Secretary of State for Scotland, Rt Hon Alister Jack MP explained what he sees as the benefits of coordination:

The four-nations approach has meant that administrations across the UK have been and will continue to pool resources and expertise on a range of matters related to the response, while respecting the devolution settlements. This approach has built on many years of co-operation between the administrations on preparations for public health emergencies and other matters related to civil contingency planning and response. The UK and Scottish Governments have had very regular interaction at all levels, including between ministers and officials, between the Chief Medical Officers (CMOs), senior NHS clinicians and public health officials, and among the scientific experts advising both Governments.65

24.Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport, Jeane Freeman OBE MSP, told us in evidence on 11 June 2020 that at the start of the crisis:

The four nations came together using the advice that came primarily through SAGE, that consensus approach to the scientific advice, and crafted, agreed and published at the same time the four-nation plan, which set out the phases that we would individually, in each of our countries, and collectively work our way through, from containment through to delay and so on. At that point, there were, I think it is fair to say, considerable interrelationships and discussions.66

Early stage communications

25.We were interested to hear about the nature of communication the Cabinet Secretary had had with the UK Government in the early stages on the pandemic. She reported that:

By and large it is weekly, usually about 30 to 45 minutes. We have, I think, in every single one of those conversations discussed PPE. We have also discussed where we are respectively in our own approaches to testing and contact tracing: are we ready to launch it, how is it going, how have the first weeks gone, and so on. I have raised with the Secretary of State the decision taken by the Department for International Trade and others that the overseas network would not support the devolved administrations in securing international orders for PPE, so we have raised that. By and large, it is implementation issues, although we do also discuss where we are likely to be going in policy terms, for example, around shielding. We are not making shared decisions at that point, it is very much an exchange of information.67

26.An account of effective working relationships in the early stages of the pandemic was also expressed by the then Scotland Office Minister, Douglas Ross MP. In his evidence to us on 14 May 2020, he told us that:

Dialogue between all four Health Secretaries around the nations, all four Chief Medical Officers around the nations and all four clinical leads around the nations has been exceptional. People have rightly expected politicians to work together, and we are also seeing our health authorities and our health leaders across the country working together.68

27.Scotland Office Director Gillian McGregor CBE, said in the same session that during the pandemic there had been “a real ramping up in engagement at official level between all the devolved administrations and the UK Government.”69 The Secretary of State for Scotland, Rt Hon Alister Jack, said he believed the four-nations approach has also been demonstrated in areas such as the procurement of Personal Protective Equipment. He cited the centralised PPE facility in Liverpool from where supplies have been sent to the Scottish NHS.70

28.Many of the academics and commentators we questioned also echoed the view of good cooperation at the start. Professor Nicola McEwen, Co-Director at the Centre on Constitutional Change, said:

If you look back to the early phase and the action plan document of 3 March, that looks to me very much like an intergovernmental document. It speaks in the language of intergovernmental relations and seems to be something that has been co-determined and shaped by all of the Administrations.71

29.It has been necessary, and important, for the UK’s four nations to work cooperatively in order to tackle a pandemic that does not respect borders. There was considerable effort at the start of the outbreak to work together, with the publication of the Four-Nations Action Plan. Each of the devolved administrations were also able to feed into the development of the UK Coronavirus Act 2020.

Emerging variation in policy between nations

30.Throughout the pandemic there have been differences in the policies between each Government of the UK. At first, these were minor but, in general, co-ordination efforts between the four-nations were perceived to have been excellent. Linda Bauld, Professor of Public Health at the University of Edinburgh’s Usher Institute, told us that “there was similar messaging coming from the UK Government and the devolved nations. I think that was necessary and important because of the scale of the challenge that the UK faced.”72Akash Paun, a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Government, commended initial co-ordination but noted that “things have changed very much since then”.73

31.On 10 May, the Prime Minister made a major announcement, which was broadcast across the UK, but which made changes that only applied in England. He stated, amongst other measures:

32.When the change was announced, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s own media briefing stated that the message in Scotland remained unchanged:

For the avoidance of doubt, let me be clear – except for the one change I have confirmed today, the rules here have not changed. We remain in lockdown for now and my ask of you remains to Stay at Home.77

33.From this point onwards, the approach to managing the coronavirus pandemic differed between the four nations of the UK. However, we are aware that there is an opinion that such differences were to be expected, due to the devolved nature of decision making: the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, told the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee on 29 April that while he thought it was better for the UK nations to work together, “different policy approaches can be floated or proposed”.78 The Institute for Government has argued that while a coordinated strategy between the four nations is preferable, “a co-ordinated approach does not mean a uniform approach” and there may be legitimate reasons for the four nations to move at different speeds in easing the lockdown.79

34.Despite these differences, there was insistence that each of the Government’s decisions were co-ordinated via a four-nations approach. The Secretary of State for Scotland’s appearance at our Committee meeting on 14 May came just as these differences easing of lockdown restrictions had emerged. At that point the Secretary of State was clear that it remained “absolutely a four nations approach”80 and that the differences between them were “absolutely miniscule”.81 He went on to say:

As you know, there was a divergence at the weekend over the messaging, and some disagreement over timing. Everyone has a different opinion of what their R number is, which is fine; although the R number is scientific, it is created from a broad range. We are still pooling our resources and expertise and we are co-ordinating, but we completely respect the right of the devolved nations to move at a different pace if they need to.82

35.We continued to note concern around divergence of policy between the nations of the UK. Akash Paun, Institute for Government, warned that, while there might be good reasons for the different governments of the UK to diverge, “weakening systems of intergovernmental co-operation, information sharing and dialogue” was causing divergence to almost happen by accident.83 This is of concern given that, as Nicola McEwen stated, future issues of economic recovery “will equally require co-operation and communication between the Administrations for quite a long time to come […] whether or not you can describe it as collectively a four-nations approach”.84

Risks around messaging

36.If the policies themselves diverged slightly, but were not that different, it seems to us that the major issue related to problems in messaging and ensuring that the public understood what behaviours would be acceptable in the various jurisdictions. Nicola McEwen said one of the problems is around the role of the UK Government:

The UK Government are simultaneously speaking for the UK as a whole and also acting as the Government of England. That has been at the source of some of the confusion in the public health messages, where it is not always clear, and it has not always been made clear when the messages are directed at England alone and when they are directed at the UK as whole.85

37.We also recognise problems for those living on the border, where it has been even more unclear which policies apply to them. When discussing the matter, Dr Gregor Smith, Chief Medical Officer for Scotland, reflected that: “messaging is important. How people understand the message becomes an important consideration in terms of how you create confidence that people are going to respond and comply with the behaviours. That is something that has been a consideration throughout our scientific advisory structures. It is something that has a very clear feed-in to the SAGE advisory networks through the work of the SPI-B subgroup”.86

38.We asked the Secretary of State, when he gave evidence, to give an account of the discussions that had taken place between the UK and Scottish Governments prior to the UK Government changing its message from ‘Stay at Home’ to ‘Stay Alert’. He said that there had been meetings, including with the First Minister and Deputy First Minster, and other communication between officials. He told us it was made very clear to the Scottish Government that there was going to be a change in message, but he conceded that Nicola Sturgeon’s account of not being consulted on what the message would be was correct. He said it was also the case that “many Government Departments were not consulted on the message, because the message was for the communications experts to bring forward”.87

39.The Secretary of State acknowledged that the change and differences in messaging “did cause some confusion”.88 He stated that:

I think we have all accepted—that that could have been more specific, but we were very quick to make that clear. The UK Government were very quick to make the position clear immediately afterwards.89

Differing messages

40.Professor Bauld, criticised a “lack of transparency”90 around intergovernmental co-operation which she said led to confusion about some of the approaches. David Bell, Economics Professor at the University of Stirling, agreed, saying it had “been difficult to see why decisions had been made”.91 He went on to say that:

Clearly with a pandemic it may be appropriate to take actions in different places at different times, but there has not been the same sort of overview about the development of the pandemic across the whole of the United Kingdom.92

41.We understand that if a four-nations approach still exists, it does not mean uniformity. We are concerned that, as time has gone on, divergence has increased significantly, sometimes accidentally, leading to public confusion and questions about how decisions are made.

42.The UK Government has failed to make clear when its messaging applies only to England, causing unnecessary confusion in the devolved nations. There should be messaging clarity to minimise confusion across national boundaries, and this must begin to happen with immediate effect. Then, in its response to the Committee, the Government must outline how it intends to address its failings in messaging, and how it plans to distribute future messages. All Government policy announcements must state clearly to which nation they apply. Post-message clarification is too late a point for providing these explanations, since, it risks leaving members of the public without the information they need to determine which messages apply to them, when they need it.

Joint Ministerial Committee vs. Ministerial Implementation Groups

43.The long-established mechanism for intergovernmental relations, the Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC), has not been used throughout the pandemic. This came as a surprise to us given that the JMC has been, as our predecessor Committee stated in its report, the foundation of intergovernmental relations since the start of devolution. In his oral evidence, the Secretary of State said:

During our dealing with this pandemic, there has been a lull in JMCs. We have been instead operating pretty much daily on what we call MIGs: ministerial implementation groups. There are a variety of different MIGs on health, the economy, the public sector and so on. The Scottish Government Minister or officials—usually both—and those from the other devolved nations will be present, feeding into and debating in those meetings.93

44.Whilst Jeane Freeman MSP told us that she felt it was “disappointing that the JMC had not met” and that there was a feeling “it could fulfil a useful function”,94 others are of the opinion that it would not have been an appropriate mechanism for dealing with coronavirus. Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs, Michael Russell MSP said, when giving evidence to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee on 23 June 2020:

I do not think there has been a single academic report that has found it fit for purpose. The JMC is bust, and I am the only person who has been to every meeting of the JMC (EN) and, believe me, it is bust.95

45.We heard similar sentiments from Professor Nicola McEwen, of the Centre on Constitutional Change, when she told us that, had the JMC been used for COVID-19, “its weaknesses and limitations would have been exposed”.96

46.The Secretary of State did point out to us that the Ministerial Implementation Groups have not replaced the JMC but were being used instead for discussions on COVID-19.97

COBRA and Ministerial Implementation Groups

47.When the Secretary of State first spoke to us on 14 May, he told us that there were two or three MIG meetings each day and “quite often at weekends”.98 Meetings of COBRA have come in addition to those “when there are major decisions to be taken”.99

48.However, we heard conflicting evidence from Jeane Freeman MSP who said that COBRA and MIG meetings, involving decision makers from devolved nations, have become so infrequent they are barely meeting at all. She told us that “the engagement at senior ministerial and political level has not been as consistent as we would wish it to be.”100 At the time of her oral evidence, on 11 June, she said “the last COBRA meeting was 10 May.”101 She also said that while the four nations approach was a “very positive start” and “remained important”,102 she did not understand why COBRA and the Ministerial Implementation Groups, had stopped meeting with nothing put in their place.

49.It is unclear whether the number of meetings decreased over time, or if attendance of decision-makers decreased with time. Either way, it appears to be the case that at some point, decision-makers in Scotland were not taking part in MIGs or COBRA meetings.

50.Despite Nicola McEwen describing the MIGs as “creatures of Whitehall”,103 Michael Russell MSP told the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee on 23 June 2020 that:

The ministerial implementation group structure was good. I think we all regret that it suddenly came to an end without consultation with the other Administrations. Nothing has been put in its place that actually brings people together. […] Cobra is clearly useful, and again it has not met recently. There was a four-nations communications call every day, which came to an end in early June and that is to be regretted. We are probably in a bit of a limbo at the present moment.104

51.This raises questions about what formal mechanisms are currently in place to host intergovernmental discussion and what will replace them. Jeane Freeman MSP stated there is now “a vacuum in terms of shared discussion and decision making at ministerial level.”105

52.The First Minister, I understand, has had calls both with Michael Gove and with the Prime Minister, but there have been no forums at governmental level for that shared discussion, decision making and information exchange that you would have, for example, through COBRA.”106

53.We understand that the MIGs are to be replaced by two Cabinet Committees but it is not clear whether they will have any relation to the JMC and, as Akash Paun pointed out, whether the Governments from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be involved.107 Mr Paun reported that the UK Government did have a plan:

To replace those Ministerial Implementation Groups with two new Cabinet Committees on coronavirus strategy and coronavirus operations […] The Government seem to be basing that model on the Cabinet Committee structure that was used during the latter phase of the Brexit process. There is obviously a view that that worked well in ensuring a kind of cross-Government discussion of the various issues that arose in responding to coronavirus whereas, as I understand it, the Ministerial Implementation Groups were seen as creating rather separate sectoral discussions. I believe that is partly the reasoning behind it, but as far as the Scottish Government are concerned, I think it is yet to be clarified whether Scottish Ministers and Ministers from the other devolved Governments will be invited to meetings of those new Cabinet Committees. I think the UK Government should clarify that as soon as possible, and the Committee should put pressure on them to do so.108

54.The Government website lists membership and terms of reference for those Committees online. The Covid-19 Operations Committee includes a membership of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and Minister for the Cabinet Office (Chair), Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, and states that “Other Cabinet Ministers will be invited according to the agenda”. The Government states that the terms of reference are “to deliver the policy and operational response to Covid-19”.109

55.The membership of the Covid-19 Strategy Committee includes the Prime Minister (Chair), Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and First Secretary of State, Secretary of State for the Home Department, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, and the Secretary of State for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy. The terms of reference will be to drive the Government’s strategic response to Covid-19, considering the impact of both the virus and the response to it, and setting the direction for the recovery strategy.110

56.Notably, neither Committee’s membership nor terms of reference refer to a commitment to include decision makers in devolved nations within discussions on a consistent basis.

Impact on future intergovernmental relations

57.We asked our witnesses whether coronavirus could be a turning point for the management of intergovernmental relations (IGR). While there was general acknowledgement that something ought to be done to improve intergovernmental working, repeated UK Government promises to review the IGR machinery and “a lack of early communication on developments, a lack of codetermination of policy decisions and a lack of joined-up working”111 during the pandemic did not prompt optimism.

58.One of the standard mechanisms for IGR, the JMC, received a particularly poor prognosis, with the Royal Society of Edinburgh stating in its written evidence that: “If [the JMC] is deemed to be inappropriate to support the recovery phase, this would add to the questions long posed about the utility of the JMC mechanism as the central feature of UK intergovernmental relations”.112

59.To resolve the long-standing IGR issues, a major step change is required. Akash Paun, from the Institute for Government, stated that: “It is even clearer now that, where there are big issues that do not respect borders, such as a big pandemic, you need proper systems for trying to reach joint decisions that do not necessarily impinge upon the autonomy of the different Governments, but that at least try to develop consensus between the Governments”.113 We await the UK Government’s Review of Intergovernmental Relations, which was launched in March 2018, and hope that it contains commitments to strength intergovernmental working, and supporting mechanisms.

60.We are concerned to hear that Ministerial Implementation Groups (MIGs) and COBRA have ceased to meet in the context of the pandemic. From what we have heard about how communication standards currently stand, decision-makers in devolved nations have come to be consulted in an informal way, rather than via formalised, minuted mechanisms like the JMC. We recommend that the Government outline how it has discussed decisions about the pandemic with decision-makers in devolved nations, and how it has guaranteed that regular communication have been taking place between the four nations, thus far. The Government should explain why MIGs and COBRA have ceased to meet and what consultation there was with the Scottish, and other devolved governments, prior to this decision.

61.Looking to the future, Ministers must outline, in response to this report, their plans for the coronavirus Cabinet Committees, [Covid-19 Operations Committee and COVID-19 Strategy Committee] and how those Committees will incorporate the priorities of the devolved nations. In view of the previous Scottish Affairs Committee’s report on intergovernmental relations,114 the Government must now commit to the following:

i)That key decision-makers in devolved nations hold permanent seats on the COVID-19 Cabinet Committees;

ii)That the COVID-19 Committees be staffed by officials with a deep understanding of all four nations of the UK. In particular, the secretariat must include officials from the Office of the Secretary of State for Scotland, the Office of the Secretary of State for Wales and the Northern Ireland Office, as well as representatives of the Scottish Government (and other nations including Wales and Northern Ireland); and

iii)That formal mechanisms will exist to guarantee intergovernmental communications, including formal meetings between Ministers in devolved nations; officials in devolved nations; advisory services in devolved nations.

62.We have also noted that the Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC) has not been used as a method of intergovernmental communication throughout the pandemic, although we have heard suggestions that it would not have been fit for purpose in the COVID-19 context. This raises further questions about the resilience and suitability of existing intergovernmental structures in crisis situations and what it means for the future of intergovernmental relations. We call on the Government to justify its preference for COBRA and the Ministerial Implementation Groups over the Joint Ministerial Committee as the main mechanisms for intergovernmental relations during the pandemic thus far.

63.We also recommend that the Government explain to us how it will incorporate concerns about the resilience and suitability of current IGR structures (particularly the JMC) into its ongoing review of Intergovernmental Relations.

Office of the Secretary of State for Scotland

64.Professor McEwen explained that in general, the role of the Scotland Office is “to represent the interests of Scotland in the UK Government and to represent the UK Government in Scotland”.115 However, she described how, on an intergovernmental relations level, the Scottish Government prefers: “to nurture relationships directly with Whitehall portfolio Departments, and if there is any unlocking needed, it now tends to be done by the Cabinet Office.”116 Jeane Freeman MSP confirmed to us that, from a health point of view, she has had no direct working relationship with the Secretary of State for Scotland during the pandemic.117

65.Those sentiments were also reflected in our former Committee’s report on the relationship between the UK and Scottish Governments. It concluded that:

The Scotland Office has played an important role during high profile, Scotland specific political developments in recent years—such as the passage of Scotland Acts. However, outside of these major events it is clear that the majority of most intergovernmental relations are conducted directly between the Scottish Government and the relevant Whitehall departments. The Scotland Office needs to adapt to the reality of how devolution is working on the ground. We do, however, recognise that there is a legitimate role to be played in terms of the Office representing the work of the UK Government in Edinburgh.118

66.Others, however, felt that the Office for the Secretary of State for Scotland (Scotland Office) had held a key role during the pandemic thus far. Akash Paun, Institute for Government, argued that the Scotland Office does serve a function within Whitehall as a centre of expertise and institutional memory about the devolution settlement. He said that it also holds contacts, relationships and networks that are useful to other Departments but added that it is not “the central player in managing intergovernmental relations”.119

67.We also note the comments made by Scotland Office Director, Gillian McGregor, that it has “ramped up” meetings at an official level:

We have created some new channels for communication, bringing in parts of the government machine that may not have interacted with the devolved administrations before, such as procurement and technical expertise.120

68.In the Secretary of State’s written evidence to the inquiry, he mentions various ministerial and official level engagement and adds “much of this […] engagement has been initiated or facilitated by Ministers and officials in the Office of the Secretary of State for Scotland; officials are in routine communication with Scottish Government officials across a range of policy areas.”121

Vacuum of leadership

69.As discussed in the former section of this report, it appears that the MIGs and COBRA are no longer meeting, with Jeane Freeman MSP stating that there is now “a vacuum in terms of shared discussion and decision making at ministerial level”.122 In addition, it remains unclear whether the new COVID-19 Cabinet Committees will involve decision-makers from the devolved nations.

70.From our predecessor Committee’s evidence session with Rt Hon Alister Jack MP, Secretary of State for Scotland, last year, we understand that the Department is committed to being “Scotland’s voice in Whitehall”.123 This commitment was echoed in the Government’s written evidence to us, which stated that: “Much of [the] ministerial and official level engagement has been initiated or facilitated by Ministers and officials in the Office of the Secretary of State for Scotland; officials are in routine communication with Scottish Government officials across a range of policy areas”.124 We suspect that this co-ordination role may be a key area of development for the Department.

71.Evidence heard on the role of the Office of the Secretary of State for Scotland (Scotland Office) echoes the findings of the previous Committee, which found that Scottish and UK Ministerial counterparts preferred to communicate directly, rather than via the Office of the Secretary of State for Scotland. While the Secretary of State and officials at the Scotland Office provided us with accounts of additional engagement with the Scottish Government, there is a continuing risk of the Scotland Office finding itself out the loop on UK-Scotland issues relating to the pandemic.

72.The Government must specify and define a clear role for the Office of the Secretary of State for Scotland in the context of COVID-19 and similar UK-wide emergencies. We understand that the Department is committed to being Scotland’s voice in Whitehall and has already arranged a series of communications between respective Ministers and officials in the Scottish and UK administrations. In that case, 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 are invited to all intergovernmental discussions. This may help fill the ‘vacuum’ in ministerial level communication between the UK and Scottish Governments that has been described to us.

Scientific cooperation

73.Throughout our inquiry, we have heard a substantial amount of evidence about the scientific cooperation that has taken place between the four nations during the pandemic.

74.Interim Chief Medical Officer (CMO) for Scotland, Dr Gregor Smith, told us the four CMOs of the UK had been meeting on a regular basis since the end of January, approximately three times per week, with more than 50 meetings having taken place by the time he gave evidence on 21 May 2020. He added:

We also have meetings of senior clinicians from across the UK nations twice a week. During those meetings, we particularly discuss new and emerging information in relation to clinical issues; where there needs to be a consensus formed on how we approach those clinical issues across the United Kingdom, those decisions tend to be made in those meetings so that we can then take the advice forward for Ministers to consider.125

75.During that session, he told us that the meetings “have been incredibly important to come to a consensus view on what the evidence means, so that that can then be taken back to the Scottish context—I am able to provide advice, based on the evidence, as it has emerged, which can then be applied in the Scottish context.”126 Dr Smith also said:

Our science advice comes from a variety of different sources. There are the scientific advisory structures that we have. We receive advice on evidence from the SAGE structures and the Scottish Advisory Group. Within that, there are specific advisers with a specialism in infection prevention and control, who sit in the Scottish group in particular. They lead sub-groups both for SAGE and the Scottish advisory group on how we can strengthen our approaches to infection prevention and control. That has been a really critical part of our increasing understanding and our learning about the way that this virus approaches.127

76.Professor Sheila Rowan, the Scottish Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, explained how she interacts across all four nations:

I obviously have contact with the CSA network across the UK and the devolved Administrations. There are CSAs for pretty much every Government Department, and we meet on a regular basis, typically weekly […] and that forms one route by which the CSAs have regular contact and can share information.128

She added:

I am the science adviser to the Scottish Government, so my role is to help the Scottish Government to access its science advice, which can come from a variety of different sources. Then, in terms of decisions, that feeds in to be taken into account by Ministers, who make those decisions. My role in that, in the current situation, is partly to sit on the covid-19 advisory group that helps to inform the CMO, and to help information to flow in that way.129

77.Professor Andrew Morris, from the University of Edinburgh and Director of Health Data Research UK, is also Chair of the Scottish Government’s COVID-19 Advisory Group. When he gave evidence on 21 May 2020, he pointed to good relations on a medical and scientific level:

What works well is that, since my appointment on 25 March, I have participated in every SAGE meeting. We have a principle of reciprocity with SAGE, so we see all their papers and they see our minutes, and I have attended every SAGE meeting—except today, because of this Committee, I should say. That notion of reciprocity and trying to define the up-to-date scientific evidence, when there is so much uncertainty about this new disease, has worked very well. Our specific role is to work in partnership with SAGE, but then to provide advice to Scottish Ministers through the CMO on the specific aspects of the science in relation to the context of Scotland.130

78.Professor Jason Leitch, the Scottish Government’s Clinical Director of Healthcare Quality and Strategy told us on 11 June 2020 that each of the professional groupings talk often, in pandemic and out of pandemic:

The four chief medical officers talk often. They are meeting in the evenings twice a week presently. Then we have a broader senior clinicians group with about 15 to 20 of us from the four countries. Public Health England, Public Health Scotland, the clinical directors of the system—Steve Powis in England and me—and the chief nurses and chief medical officers working together to try to make choices and decisions about the advice we are going to give. Shielding is a good example. That group would look at which elements of shielding need to be adjusted or need to be added to, then there would be a smaller meeting to decide whether we should put, say, dialysis in the shielded group and then those decisions are made at an individual country level following that individual advice.131

Transparency

79.It is clear that on a medical and scientific level, the evidence points to comprehensive and frequent communications between experts across the four nations. However, a number of questions and criticisms have been made, including on SAGE’s transparency.132 Professor Linda Bauld said:

Key scientific advisers and people working within the Scottish Government were not able to see transparently the kind of advice that SAGE was providing. That was a big problem, and it has changed now. Then Scotland formed its advisory group quite late at the end of March. I think the Governments are getting some different advice, maybe not on issues to do with the best type of testing or PPE, or those kinds of issues, but more about what is prioritised for risk and crucially, I think, how the different disciplines on those groups are dominant or not.133

80.She also questioned the lack of clarity around the advice that led to different decisions about the pace of easing of lockdown, saying that “not everything has been transparent at all”.134 Professor Andrew Morris, who Chairs the Scottish Government’s COVID-19 Advisory Group, told us:

Transparency is a very important principle. […] [The Scottish] Government and I agreed that the membership and the minutes [of the Advisory Group] should be published, and it has been. […] The issue of the transparency of SAGE should be asked of the chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, and the UK CMO, Chris Whitty.135

81.The lack of transparency led to further concerns about the advice provided to the UK and Scottish Government in tackling coronavirus outbreaks. As mentioned earlier in the report, the four Governments have taken different decisions around lockdown policy and timing. Although, the Governments have said that their actions have been based on “scientific advice”, a lack of transparency in some cases makes it challenging to assess those claims. Reflecting on this issue, Professor David Bell, University of Stirling, said that even if the advice given to the UK and Scottish Governments was the same, they could still take different attitudes to risk and that “it is clearly possible that one Government want to take a more cautious approach than another.”136

Lack of practical expertise

82.We have been concerned to hear about a gap in on-the-ground clinical experience amongst key decision makers. Professor Bauld, University of Edinburgh, voiced concern in her evidence that the three expert groups that feed into SAGE are “almost devoid of practical, on the ground public health experience.”137

83.Communication on a scientific level appears to have been regular and consistent between the four nations. Transparency around SAGE has improved with the publication of its membership and minutes. 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 through-out the pandemic. This may be due to emphasis on different considerations in each area of the UK, including demographic considerations, such as age, and local R rate. It is difficult to assess these concerns due to issues around transparency.

84.We call on the UK and Scottish Governments to provide details of the procedures and processes used by their advisory groups for providing scientific advice. A commitment to transparency around scientific advice would provide the public and Parliament with the means necessary to scrutinise decisions around the pandemic.

85.In addition, we recommend that both the UK and Scottish Governments should consider increasing the number of ‘on the ground’ public health officials in key advisory roles to complement the expertise of academics.

Joint Biosecurity Centre

86.On 10 May, the UK Government announced the creation of a Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC) to bring together expertise and analysis to inform decisions on tackling COVID-19. The JBC is intended to look at evidence and biosecurity threats in England, although the Government has said it “will engage with the devolved administrations to explore how the centre can operate most effectively across the UK”.138

87.On 14 May 2020, the Secretary of State told us that work on the JBC was collaborative across the four nations:

There is a biosecurity centre that all four nations are feeding into, and through that biosecurity centre […] we will hopefully improve the quality of the COVID Alert System.139

88.Witnesses to our inquiry welcomed the announcement but said that questions remain about its operations, particularly who from each of the devolved nations will be involved. Professor Andrew Morris, Chair of the Scottish Government’s COVID-19 advisory Committee, said on 21 May 2020:

The scientific community is of the view […] that being able to create a reliable, scalable and sustainable system for active surveillance that would allow early detection of potential disease outbreaks at a locality level is absolutely essential, so the JBC, as it is called, is to be welcomed. […] Who precisely the Scottish Government select to represent us is something that you will have to ask the policy makers.140

89.Dr Gregor Smith, Interim Chief Medical Officer for Scotland, outlined what he sees as the advantages of a JBC:

The role that interests me most closely is the way that it develops and uses data sources across the UK. That is a really interesting development. For instance, on a number of occasions, Professors Rowan, Morris and myself have explored the types of data sets that would be particularly useful in Scotland. When there is an opportunity to work on those data sets with colleagues in the other nations across the UK, then certainly it is very attractive to us as clinicians and scientists to be able to make sure that we are part of that evidence-gathering process.141

90.Similarly, Professor Leitch, the Scottish Government’s National Clinical Director told us that:

Anything that helps us with intelligence gathering, with intelligence sharing in a safe way and making more intelligent and data evidence-based choices about how to move through the stages of this pandemic is welcome. We have been peripherally involved in the decision making around that UK Government-based theme. A bit like the tracing app, I think it is fair to say that the Cabinet Secretary and I would be of a mind that if it were useful, if it fed into our data systems and our data systems could feed into it, and if we were comfortable with both the security and privacy of it, we would of course engage in it.142

91.Despite the JBC being broadly welcomed, there was some scepticism in the evidence we received about the initial announcement. Linda Bauld, Professor of Public Health at the University of Edinburgh’s Usher Institute told us that it was “a good example of the UK Government going ahead with a particular initiative, embracing it and being very enthusiastic about it, because to the public anything with ‘biosecurity’ in the title sounds serious and is something to be taken account of”.143 She voiced concern that the announcement was made quickly “without adequate consultation”.144

92.Akash Paun, Institute for Government, agreed, saying “when you look back on it, it does look rather that the Government, the Prime Minister perhaps, wanted to have a big impressive-sounding initiative to announce, but they had not worked out the details of what that was going to look like in practice. I think the question marks about how the devolved Governments will be involved in it remain.”145

93.The concept of the Joint Biosecurity Centre has been broadly welcomed by the witnesses we heard from, particularly the opportunity for the sharing and development of data sets. However, some questions around the role of the Centre remain, particularly how the devolved nations will feed in.

94.The Government must answer a range of outstanding questions in relation to the Joint Biosecurity Centre, including: the Government’s assessment of the benefits of establishing such a Centre for all four nations, how the devolved administrations will contribute and who in the Scottish Government will be given the opportunity to do so.


63 Akash Paun, Constitution Unit, UCL, Five key questions about coronavirus and devolution, 31 May 2020

64 UK, Scottish, Welsh Governments and Northern Ireland Executive, Four Nations Action Plan, March 2020

65 Secretary of State for Scotland (COR0012)

77 Scottish Government, Coronavirus (COVID-19) update: First Minister’s speech 10 May 2020, accessed 16 July 2020

78 Oral evidence taken before the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee on 29 April 2020, HC (2019–2021) 118, Q188

80 Q2

81 Q6

82 Q2

87 Q3

95 Oral evidence taken before the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee on 23 June 2020, HC (2019–2021) 377, Q89

104 Oral evidence taken before the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee on 23 June 2020, HC (2019–2021) 377, Q75

111 Q190 [Akash Paun, Institute for Government]

112 Royal Society of Edinburgh (COR0013)

114 Scottish Affairs Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2017–19, The relationship between the UK and Scottish Governments, HC 1586

118 Scottish Affairs Committee, Seventh Special Report of Session 2017–19, The relationship between the UK and Scottish Governments: Government Response to the Committee’s Eighth Report, HC 2532

119 Scottish Affairs Committee, Seventh Special Report of Session 2017–19, The relationship between the UK and Scottish Governments: Government Response to the Committee’s Eighth Report, HC 2532

121 Secretary of State for Scotland (COR0012)

123 Oral evidence taken on 16 October 2019, HC (2017–19) 46, Q2 [Alister Jack MP]

124 Secretary of State for Scotland (COR0012)

138 Institute for Government, Joint Biosecurity Centre, May 2020




Published: 23 July 2020