Coronavirus and Scotland: Interim Report on Intergovernmental Working Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

1.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. (Paragraph 41)

2.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. (Paragraph 42)

3.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. (Paragraph 60)

4.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, the Government must now commit to the following: (Paragraph 61)

5.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. (Paragraph 62)

6.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. (Paragraph 63)

7.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. (Paragraph 71)

8.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. (Paragraph 72)

9.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. (Paragraph 83)

10.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. (Paragraph 84)

11.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. (Paragraph 85)

12.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. (Paragraph 93)

13.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. (Paragraph 94)

Published: 23 July 2020