One of the more interesting subplots of the pandemic, for the sort of people who enjoy this column, has been the way it has exposed the extent to which the British Government has abdicated power under devolution and the difficulties this creates when trying to rise to common challenges.
That is not to say that one part of the country has covered itself in glory at the expense of the others. Drakeford indulged devocrat instincts at the start of the pandemic, delaying things like volunteer coordination and emergency food deliveries for the sake of not opting in to English systems, but then delivered a gold-star vaccine rollout. Sturgeon’s handling of the crisis was praised but her ministers oversaw a scandalous release of Covid patients into care homes full of vulnerable people.
For his part, the Prime Minister has repeatedly been too slow to impose lockdowns or shut the borders, but delegated responsibility for vaccine procurement to the hyper-competent Kate Bingham and thus helped secure a world-class rollout for Britain.
But despite haphazard attempts to stay on the same page, the four governments have repeatedly fallen out of alignment on Covid restrictions, creating tangible legal barriers inside the UK and giving some nationalists in Wales and Scotland an opportunity to indulge in ugly anti-English prejudice.
On unlocking, however, there might be some coincidental unity. Nicola Sturgeon has indicated that the Scottish Government will delay its own easing of coronavirus restrictions, which the Guardian reports means that “the next significant easing could coincide with England”. Or it could be much later: the First Minister has had to deny suggestions the rules could remain in place until September after Scotland’s national clinical director warned of a delay of up to ten weeks.
In Wales, meanwhile, Mark Drakeford has shown no such reticence in taking an extremely cautious approach. According to Wales Online: “the refusal of the Welsh Government to set out any kind of final target date for all restrictions being lifted has caused a different kind of frustration” – namely the danger of falling out of sync with the Treasury’s timetable for winding down economic support.
Furlough is due to start paying out a smaller share of employees’ wages in July, and then to fall again in August and September. This presents a serious worry to nightclubs and other businesses in Wales, which don’t know if they’ll be able to reopen. (If Scotland’s unlocking date does end up tracking England’s, this might explain why.)
This danger really highlights the real-world consequences of the disjointed state of the constitution. Having lockdown regimes set independently of the financial support which makes them viable risks punishing businesses and individuals, especially sectors such as the night economy which have few champions in Westminster or Cardiff Bay. But it would equally be ridiculous to allow the Welsh Government to simply vote itself as much British cash as it wanted without having to answer to the British Government, and thus the British taxpayer.
Michael Gove’s move to scrap English Votes for English Laws is reportedly about making “the House of Commons and Westminster institutions work for every part of the UK”. But part and parcel of that is making sure that Parliament can work in every part of the UK. If meeting a crisis requires the might of the British Treasury, our response should be coordinated by the British state.