For constitutionalists, one of the running stories of the pandemic has been the cold light it has shone on the fragmentation of our country in the two decades since New Labour’s new devolution settlement. Instead of a coherent national response, ministers were stuck trying to negotiate a ‘four nations’ approach.
More often than not, this didn’t work, with the various home nations falling out of step with each other.
In addition to unwelcome side-effects, such as the creation of internal movement borders not only between Great Britain and Northern Ireland but on the mainland itself, this often raised difficult governance questions. For example, why devolve the power to order lockdowns when the Treasury (rightly) controls the economic interventions that make lockdown viable?
According to this morning’s papers, Michael Gove is making a fresh effort to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. The Sun reports that the Levelling Up Secretary will chair a meeting of ‘senior ministers’ from all four administrations, presumably to try and hammer out some sort of common approach.
This comes after Nichola Sturgeon reimposed what the paper calls “the toughest measures in months”, restricting socialising to just three households (although this will not apply on Christmas Day), a move which could increase pressure on Boris Johnson to being in new restrictions in England. Shops and hospitality will also be asked to bring back screens and physical distancing.
Omicron has now apparently spread to every health board in Scotland, according to the BBC. But as yet there don’t seem to be plans to revive the First Minister’s daily televised briefings, which the SNP insisted were vitally important in the months before this year’s Holyrood election.
John Swinney, the Deputy First Minister, has also confirmed the leadership of a separate Scottish inquiry into the pandemic response. This will run alongside the ‘four nations’ (sigh) one that the UK Government is proposing.
UK demands Protocol changes to give Ulster businesses more support
The Daily Telegraph reports that the Government is going to seek even more changes to the Northern Irish Protocol in order to give Westminster more leeway to offer pandemic support to businesses in the Province.
At present, the deal’s rules on subsidies means that London needs sign-off from Brussels for policies such as Covid support loans. Apparently the latter is, quelle surprise, unwilling to negotiate on the question. According to the paper, control over subsidies is supposed to “protect European businesses from a future UK government pumping state support into businesses in Northern Ireland”.
Suffice to say, the odds of European businesses needing such ‘protection’ seems rather remote. We’re still waiting for the market distortions which are supposed to have arisen from Britain refusing to implement the Protocol’s full controls on goods entering Ulster from the mainland. Northern Ireland simply isn’t very big.
In other news, the Government has offered more licences to French fishing vessels in what the FT is calling a “sign of further de-escalation of tensions”. It is also reportedly delaying checks on goods entering from Ireland as “a sign of good faith”.