At the weekend, the Prime Minister is reportedly going to set out how the country is going to start charting a path out of total lockdown and towards a more sustainable state of affairs.
Or at least, how parts of the country are going to do it. Because a running theme of the recent crisis, which this column has covered in some detail, has been the need to try and set a coordinated policy across the balkanised landscape of devolution.
In fairness, on the big-picture stuff the various governments have actually done a fairly good job at moving in tandem. But as I wrote last week, this may prove harder to maintain in the future. There is a real danger that trying to bring different parts of the country or economy out of lockdown at different paces will place huge strain on the public goodwill which has sustained it thus far.
Yet such an outcome may be inevitable. It’s not just about maintaining a top-level willingness on the part of politicians to maintain a UK-wide approach. It’s about ensuring that the systems needed to implement a ‘test, trace, and track’ model are in place across the board, despite implementation being the responsibility of different administrations.
For example, the Scottish Government is on the record as having ‘reservations’ about the proposed NHS app – and is reportedly considering setting up a separate, Scottish one. Even if they don’t, the fact that the SNP don’t intend “building a whole system around it” raises the prospect of Scottish results not being caught or handled properly.
Meanwhile in Wales, the Tories have accused the Welsh Government of “being coy with joining the UK’s track and tracing app”. Cardiff is also currently performing fewer than ten per cent of the 30,000 tests a day that would be needed for the proposed post-lockdown system – a problem exacerbated by Welsh ministers’ insistence on ‘Welsh solutions’ forcing tests from North Wales to be sent all the way to Cardiff for processing, rather than using nearby English facilities.
(Scotland too has struggled on testing: at the start of the week it was performing fewer than half the 10,000-a-day target the SNP adminstration had set itself, and given the Welsh figure the number needed for a proper trace-and-track system is presumably considerably higher still.)
Twelve Conservative MPs also signed a letter organised by Dr James Davies to Mark Drakeford, the First Minister, accusing him of putting vulnerable people at “unacceptable ongoing risk” because the Welsh Government’s testing regime is less comprehensive than the one put in place by Westminster. One of them summed up Cardiff Bay’s role in the fight against Covid-19 thus: “an impediment and a nuisance”. Drakeford’s response to this ‘dirty dozen’ was apparently carried as an exclusive in the Morning Star.
Nor is this the only area in which the Welsh Parliament – as the Assembly rebranded itself this week – appears unready to implement a strategy which relies on the swift and efficient processing and sharing of information. For example, two Welsh health boards are have been found to have under-reported Covid-19s deaths.
And earlier this month it turned out that over 13,000 ‘shielding letters’ out of about 80,000 had gone to the wrong addresses. According to one source, this may have been caused in part because NHS records in Wales don’t routinely update things like patient addresses from secondary care providers. Patients resident in Wales but using hospitals in England may also be at risk of falling through the cracks.
Whilst the acute challenge of the coronavirus has exposed these problems, many of them predate it, being rooted in the long-term push by the Welsh Government to separate the Welsh NHS, fail to follow Westminster on things like IT updates, and deep resistance on the part of devolved ministers to the keeping of any official records which allow for easy comparison between English and Welsh outcomes.
This tendency towards eventually replicating Westminster policies, but creating confusion and delay for the sake of having something distinctly Welsh, is more than just a local annoyance that’s filling the postbags of local Conservative MPs. It could create real difficulties if Wales is simply not in a position to start easing lockdown as England. This could force ministers to choose between abandoning the UK-wide approach or effectively allowing Welsh ministers to impose another extension of lockdown on the rest of the country.
All the more reason that any post-mortem of the national response to the pandemic must include a review of the constitutional barriers to a coordinated national crisis response. This will inevitably annoy some who like to talk of an ironclad ‘devolution settlement’ – but a genuinely open-minded approach towards constitutional change must recognise that change cuts both ways.