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“At the start of the crisis we did see politics set aside, but the longer it has gone on we have seen that creeping back”

© SYSTEMDevolution expert, Jess Sargeant.
Devolution expert, Jess Sargeant.

The UK’s four nations must forge a more co-ordinated approach to easing the country out of lockdown or risk infection rates rising, according to an expert on devolution.

Jess Sargeant urged the four governments not to repeat mistakes made when restrictions were eased after the first lockdown last year when a concerted approach started fraying.

She said: “The point is really going to be driven home when we start easing the second lockdown. If the virus isn’t under control in one area, there’s going to be continuing problems for the rest of the UK. The virus doesn’t respect borders or divisions of responsibility.”

Ms Sargeant, a senior researcher working on devolution at the Institute for Government think tank, warned deteriorating co-operation and co-ordination and the breakdown of a four-nation approach as the first lockdown eased had caused public confusion over guidelines and restrictions.

She said the four countries worked closely together during the early phase of the pandemic, with key decisions on closing schools and hospitality made on a UK-wide basis, but differences in rules began to emerge in May when each government published its own roadmap for easing restrictions.

Then, during the summer, the Scottish Government said it was being cut out of joint decision-making. It pointed to the UK Government’s emergency Cobra committee not meeting between May 10 and September 22. There was also concern over the disbanding of ministerial implementation groups, which had provided daily contact between the four governments.

Ms Sargeant said: “As well as meetings of Cobra, ministers were in daily contact through ministerial implementation groups about decisions they were going to make on different aspects of their response.

“Whether meetings became less frequent because they started taking different approaches or they took different approaches because those meetings became less frequent, it is hard to tell.

“Now we are seeing Michael Gove holding almost weekly meetings with the leaders of the devolved administrations.

“It has improved, but there are still further opportunities for better working and more co-ordination.

“There’s a need for good co-ordination on the vaccine rollout. That’s a key issue.

“As the vaccines roll out, we might see governments take slightly different approaches to easing restrictions.

“When the restrictions ease again, that would be a good point to try to co-ordinate more. If one government eased restrictions earlier, the reasons and evidence for that should be made very clear to the public.”

Last weekend UK Government sources claimed the Scottish Government was “behind the curve” in the vaccination rollout.

Ms Sargeant said: “At the beginning of the crisis we did see politics set aside, but the longer it has gone on we have seen that creeping back.

“Fundamentally, this is a matter of life or death. Where there is clear performance differences between the four governments, there should be legitimate scrutiny.”

Deputy First Minister John Swinney said last weekend that having a vote on independence was an “essential priority” for Scotland’s recovery from Covid-19.

Ms Sargeant said: “It’s too early to say what the long-term impact of the crisis will be on the constitutional debate.

“The Scottish Government’s handling of the crisis is commonly considered more favourably than the UK Government’s handling.

“That may lead some voters towards thinking that may strengthen the case for independence. On the other hand, some may think the UK-wide furlough scheme and the UK Government being able to procure resources on behalf of the whole of the UK has shown the benefits of being in a union.

“It has raised the profile of devolution across the UK. There are people in England that weren’t even aware of the fact Scotland could make decisions.

“Similarly, I think it has been a big adjustment for the UK Government used to making UK-wide policy in reserved areas to remember that in certain cases they only act for England.”