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Stay alert: the slogan that split the Union

Stay alert: the slogan that split the Union

Hours before the Prime Minister was due to address the nation with his “conditional plan” out of COVID-19 lockdown, “stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives” had been ditched by the UK Government, in its place: “stay alert, control the virus, save lives.”

But that was not the case for the devolved nations. The governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all dismissed the new messaging and opted to keep “stay at home”.

“It would be catastrophic for me to drop the stay at home message, which is why I am not prepared to do it.

“And I’m particularly not prepared to do it in favour of a message that is vague and imprecise,” said Nicola Sturgeon, who first heard about the slogan in the Sunday papers.

The First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, was softer in his rebuke: “Being alert is important but staying at home has not gone away.” Northern Ireland’s FM Arlene Foster said: “On the whole, the message is to stay at home. We will say we are not deviating from the message at this time.”

And from there, the fabric holding the UK’s response to the virus together for almost two months began to unravel.

In a pre-recorded address to televisions across the UK, the Prime Minister announced: “The first careful steps to modify our measures.”

“I have consulted across the political spectrum, across all four nations of the UK,” Boris Johnson said. “And though different parts of the country are experiencing the pandemic at different rates, and though it is right to be flexible in our response, I believe that as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom – Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland – there is a strong resolve to defeat this together.”

Separately together, appeared to be Johnson’s plan.

People can now go out and lay down in parks, Johnson announced. People in Scotland cannot sunbathe but can exercise more than once a day, Sturgeon clarified.

Anyone who can’t work from home, for instance those in construction or manufacturing, should be actively encouraged to go to work, Johnson declared, but avoid public transport on your way into work.

Sturgeon said only those working in an essential job should be going to work, if you lived in Scotland and were not working or working from home, you should continue doing that. Even SNP MPs will follow the guidance in Scotland and attend Westminster virtually.

Johnson said people could get into their cars and drive to beauty spots to exercise – but only within England and if you lived in England, that is. Sturgeon said anyone travelling into Scotland from elsewhere in the UK for non-essential purposes would “potentially be in breach of the law”.

From 1 June there may be a phased reopening of schools, beginning with reception, year 1 and year 6, Johnson announced, and some shops may be reopened. Not in Scotland, as Education Secretary John Swinney tweeted: “Just for absolute clarity, nothing the Prime Minister said tonight affects when schools return in Scotland.”

After telling the UK nations there should be a united approach for weeks, it was England which had unilaterally diverged from the other three nations.

All devolved countries now had similar policies – with slight tweaks like garden centres being re-opened in Wales and churches re-opened for private prayer in Northern Ireland – to stay in the current lockdown for at least three more weeks until 28 May. But they do not yet have a timetable.

The morning after the PM’s speech, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab appeared on BBC Radio and made things even more confusing, saying it was fine to meet two people from another household as long as the households kept two metres apart. Hours later, the official advice said people could meet “only one” person from another household outdoors.

With all of these mixed messages – was the plan that the PM delivered to the nation even written before he delivered it? That was the question put to Johnson by new Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.

“What this country needs is clarity and reassurance and at the moment, both are in pretty short supply,” Starmer told the House of Commons.

He added: “There’s no consensus either on messaging or on policy between the UK Government and those in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Now we’re in that position it raises serious concerns of the real danger of divergence.”

This theme followed Johnson through much of his Commons grilling. SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford asked whether Scots should follow advice from the Scottish Government, “and not the advice he gave”. The PM replied “yes”, before adding: “There is far more that unites the UK than divides us. Though I know it is always the political temptation to accentuate the divisions, that is not going to be the approach of this government.”

Sturgeon’s take on the matter was different.

“We should not be reading of each other’s plans for the first time in newspapers. And decisions that are being taken for one nation only for good evidence-based reasons should not be presented as if they are UK-wide,” she warned, at her daily press briefing.

“As leaders, we have a duty to deliver clarity to all of you and not to confuse it. I remain committed to the closest possible co-operation, collaboration and alignment. I have no interest whatsoever in politics when it comes to tackling this virus.”

Her case for taking a more conservative approach in Scotland was made by the infamous ‘R number’ – the virus’ reproduction number – however she has not yet revealed the true number, instead maintaining it is “higher in Scotland…between 0.7 and 1”, while the UK’s number is between 0.5 and 1.

The Scottish Conservatives leant heavily on a lack of transparency around the R number, as they called for a united approach to exiting lockdown. Jackson Carlaw wrote to the FM demanding to know the science behind her decision to continue under the old lockdown – five of his eight questions were about the R number.

Failure to meet testing targets, widespread deaths in care homes and access to personal protective equipment also continued to plague the Scottish Government.

A BBC Disclosure investigation revealed University of Edinburgh scientists had found more than 2,000 deaths could have been prevented if Scotland had locked down two weeks earlier – an 80 per cent reduction in deaths.

Reports suggested Scotland was regularly missing its daily testing targets and, while Sturgeon said Scotland now had capacity to carry out 4,350 NHS tests a day, former chief medical officer Sir Harry Burns told the Holyrood COVID-19 Committee “we’ve got a long way to go on test, trace, isolate” pointing to issues in the quality of testing and lack of tracing contacts.

The next question was: if the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were going to stay in lockdown longer than their English counterparts, would treasury continue to support workers and businesses in the devolved nations?

The Job Retention Scheme had been announced early into the lockdown by Chancellor Rishi Sunak. Workers furloughed have 80 per cent of their wages paid by the government, up to a ceiling of £2,500 per month. It was initially to last until the end of May but was extended by a month.

Nearly one quarter of UK workers are now on the scheme, with 7.5 million jobs and nearly one million businesses supported.

Scottish Finance Secretary Kate Forbes and Economy Secretary Fiona Hyslop wrote to Sunak asking that the scheme’s closure be staggered geographically, depending on the stage of the health crisis in each region.

With so many Scottish workers and businesses reliant on the furlough scheme, and that scheme soon coming to an end, all eyes were on Sunak’s address to Commons. Reports leading up to the announcement had suggested the scheme would drop from 80 to 60 per cent of wages.

Describing it as a “world-leading economic intervention”, Sunak announced the arrangement would be extended by another four months to the end of October and, “through the combined efforts of government and employers”, workers will continue to receive 80 per cent of their salary, up to £2,500. “By that point we will have provided eight months of support,” he said, adding that more details would be announced by the end of May.

Employers would be expected to contribute – but how much is not yet clear. From August to October the scheme will operate with “flexibility”, employers will be encouraged to bring furloughed employees back to work part-time.

Scottish Trade Union Congress general secretary designate Roz Foyer said the scheme’s extension was “absolutely vital but its detail will be all important” and the arrangement needed to reflect the “differing guidance across the four nations”.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Chambers of Commerce (SCC) said it looked forward to seeing the detail around a proposed employers’ contribution but welcomed flexibility in the scheme. “Trading conditions will differ depending on location and sector and the flexibility of the furlough scheme must take these factors on board,” SCC chief executive Dr Liz Cameron said.

Sturgeon cautiously welcomed the extension: “If there are instances of us moving at different speeds, because the evidence says that is necessary, then the support structures have to reflect that.”

While the entire UK entered lockdown together, it now appears the four nations will exit lockdown separately.

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