In the wake of ‘partygate’, Boris Johnson probably had little choice politically but to allow Christmas and New Year’s Eve to go ahead as normal. But his decision saw yet another breach of haphazard efforts to create a joined-up, ‘four nations’ approach to the pandemic.
Both Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford, in contrast, imposed restrictions – although the First Minister of Wales at least waited until Boxing Day to lay down his signature blend of somewhat baffling rules.
His Scottish counterpart is facing a mounting backlash over her own approach, fuelled by remarks from her National Clinical Director suggesting that Scotland might not re-open mass events until April or later.
At the same time, another of her pandemic advisers has warned that another lockdown would be a “lazy solution” to Omicron and urged the First Minister to rule out the return of sweeping limits on public freedom.
Yesterday’s papers report that the First Minister has finally promised to reconsider her Covid strategy, admitting that the latest round of restrictions has been “perhaps less effective” than previous interventions and caused “more harm”.
One can understand why the hospitality industry must be seething. Even if the press did overplay stories of revellers flocking south for New Year’s Eve, as nationalists insist, the sector was still denied a much-needed end-of-year fillip, and at least a chunk of that cash got spent in Newcastle and Carlisle instead.
And the data really doesn’t suggest that it has done any good. As I explained in a recent piece, the shape of the seven-day average for cases across the last month looks pretty much the same in all three countries.
Nor should this be surprising: according to SAGE’s official estimation of the efficacy of various interventions, full-fat lockdown is the only one that rates higher than ‘moderate’ – and that was against variants less infectious than Omicron.
For its part, the Government seems increasingly bullish about its decision. The whole original selling point of lockdowns was to ‘save lives’ and ‘protect the NHS’. With Omicron much less threatening to life than previous strains, the case for interventions rests on the state of the Health Service. So far, it seems to be holding up, with more pressures arising from staff shortages created by the self-isolation rules than the feared overflow of in-patients.
And with Labour seemingly moving towards a position of “learning to live with the virus”, it looks as if the political consensus in England may have started to tilt decisively against the “new normal” of the past two years.
Perhaps Sturgeon and Drakeford will get the message and follow suit. But if they don’t, lockdown could re-emerge as a frontier in the forever war between the Government and the devocrats over the constitution (even if the greater focus remains on Northern Ireland, as our editor suggested on Tuesday).
As I have previously noted, one of the biggest tensions in our part-devolved Covid response is that the devolved executives are responsible for imposing lockdown, but it is HM Treasury that controls the economic interventions that make lockdown viable. With Rishi Sunak preoccupied with putting the public finances in order after two years of extraordinary emergency spending, it isn’t difficult to see how tensions could emerge if Scotland and Wales prove more reluctant to move away from restrictions.
In fact, we are already starting to see the devocrats’ press outriders floating the suggestion that Holyrood and Cardiff Bay should simply be able to ‘draw own’ on Treasury funding off their own bat.
Ministers should give any such suggestion short shrift. There is already too little accountability from the devolved governments for how they spend the money they receive via intra-UK fiscal transfers. Any additional cash provided by our British Treasury must be overseen by the Treasury, in order to ensure proper accountability to Parliament and ultimately the British taxpayers who stumped it up in the first place, or who will collectively bear the burden of any borrowing involved.
Post-pandemic, we do need to conduct a full assessment of the UK’s response to the pandemic and find ways to ensure that it is more coherent when we next face a similar threat. But turning the Union into a cash machine isn’t the answer.