Pandemic response has had ‘profound impact on devolution’, Scottish Affairs Committee finds
The coronavirus pandemic has had a “profound impact on devolution” and diverging messages as the UK’s devolved nations exited lockdown at different times has caused “confusion amongst the public”, a new Scottish Affairs Committee report has found.
The committee today published an interim report on intergovernmental working during the COVID-19 pandemic, which focused on “the effectiveness of the four nations approach, the intergovernmental machinery and the issues around policy divergence”.
The report expressed concerns over the future of intergovernmental working between the UK and Scottish governments, as the pandemic had “cast doubt on the suitability of existing intergovernmental structures”.
It acknowledged that during the early days of the pandemic and lockdown there was “unprecedented coordination” between the UK nations, through the ‘four-nations approach’, with the UK-wide Joint Action Plan, the Coronavirus Act and UK-wide procurement of PPE as high watermarks.
However, it found mixed messaging and a divergence in policies occurred “almost by accident” after some intergovernmental forums coordinating the COVID response ended as lockdown measures were eased “beginning with a Boris Johnson’s address on 10 May”, where he announced an easing of measures that only applied to England, as well as the change from ‘Stay at Home’ to ‘Stay Alert’.
The committee called on the UK Government to outline how it would address this, and said it was concerned that the Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC) went unused throughout the pandemic.
“The 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,” the report said.
“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.”
The committee also recommended the government explain “how it will incorporate these concerns into the ongoing review of Intergovernmental Relations”
Chair of the Scottish Affairs Committee Pete Wishart MP said the response to the crisis had revealed “the pre-existing creaking mechanisms of intergovernmental” working.
“The overlapping responsibilities of policy areas operated by Westminster and Holyrood in the pandemic response make intergovernmental communication absolutely critical in effectively controlling the spread of the virus. This was the cornerstone of the ‘four-nation’ approach that served so effectively at the start of the crisis,” he said.
“But as the focus has shifted from containment to opening
-up the economy we are concerned that the structures that made this possible have stopped.”
Wishart said the committee had heart there had been a “‘void’ in ministerial-level communication” which occurred around the same time as the four nations approach fell apart.
“Simple mistakes of not making clear which nations in which new policies apply must not be made again,” he said.
“Meanwhile, the lack of clarity over what role, if any, Scottish and devolved decision-makers will play in new structures is a source of major concern.
“The early stages of the ‘four-nation approach’ demonstrate how effective engagement can be. So, we need more of it, not less. And it needs to be a permanent feature of the future of devolution.
“That voice at the table is essential in reaching effective clarity and coordination that can save lives, limit the suffering caused economically, and to provide a well-rounded recovery, leaving a more resilient devolution.”
The committee recommended COVID-19 committees should have been 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).”
It also called for formal mechanisms “to guarantee intergovernmental communications, including formal meetings between ministers in devolved nations; officials in devolved nations; advisory services in devolved nations”.
Responding to the report, a UK Government spokesperson said: “We have confronted this virus as one United Kingdom and we continue to work closely with the devolved administrations to ensure our response works in the interests of the whole of the UK.
“Throughout this crisis there has been consistent and cooperative work, even though we may travel at slightly different speeds based on the scientific evidence.
“The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove has regular engagement with the First Ministers and has chaired over 40 committee meetings with the devolved administrations. Consistent contact has also taken place between officials throughout the pandemic. Where necessary we have made it clear to the public that different measures apply to different parts of the UK.
“The unprecedented package of support from the UK government also demonstrates how the strength of the union has helped us through this crisis. In Scotland, the UK Treasury has given £4.6 billion to the Scottish Government to help tackle the virus, supported almost 900,000 Scottish jobs, granted thousands of businesses loans and procured millions of pieces of PPE to protect frontline Scottish workers.”