There is a 'vacuum' between governments on coronavirus next steps, Jeane Freeman says
While scientists across the UK have worked well together, Freeman said, the communication at senior ministerial level “has not been as consistent”
There is a “vacuum” in cooperation between the UK and Scottish governments on the next steps in dealing with the coronavirus, health secretary Jeane Freeman has told MPs.
Appearing before the Westminster Scottish Affairs Committee, the health secretary criticised the UK Government’s decision to stop holding meetings for ministers of all four nations, which she said were “essential” in moving forward with lifting the lockdown.
While scientists across the UK have worked well together, Freeman said, the communication at senior ministerial level “has not been as consistent”.
Freeman appeared before the committee with national clinical director Jason Leitch to discuss the Scottish Government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
She said her belief is that cooperation between governments “requires discussion and not simply the communication of decisions taken”.
Contrasting the UK Government’s measures of lifting the lockdown with the Scottish Government’s, Freeman said: “Our approach differs, from what I observe from UK Government approach, in that we are much more phased, planned and are resisting the pressure of making announcement between times.”
Asked by committee chair, Pete Wishart if the UK’s ‘four nations’ approach is now “dead”, Freeman said that she still believed the approach was important, but added: “What I don’t understand and can’t answer for you is why COBRA hasn’t met since the 10th of May”.
COBRA is the UK Government’s emergency planning committee and can be attended by ministers of the devolved nations.
Freeman said that she and First Minister had asked UK ministers, including health secretary Matt Hancock and Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, to bring back the meetings or launch an alternative, but they had had no response.
She said: “COBRA seems to me be an important place for the four nation co-operation to be undertaken at a practical sense,” adding: “It is a concern to me that we have gone so long without that. COBRA has worked and in its absence there needs to be an alternative at that level."
Freeman also said that the Scotland Office had not played any role in the relations between the UK and Scottish governments, going as far as to say that she could not remember having any communications with the Secretary of State for Scotland, Alister Jack.
While the Scotland Office is copied in to some letters between Freeman and Hancock, she said she was "not aware [of] and can recall no communications with Mr Jack”.
Asked about the differences in approach taken by Scotland and England in easing lockdown restrictions, Leitch said that different countries face different demographic and geographic challenges.
He admitted that some decisions are more political than others, saying: “What the First Minister and cabinet secretary choose to do with family get togethers versus elite sport versus construction, I don’t think is my job.
“That is down to the elected members of the nations...in the end some of those judgements are for elected members."
Freeman added that she and other Scottish cabinet ministers have to make judgements based on clinical advice as well as social and economic considerations and would continue having to make “balancing decisions” until an effective vaccine is developed