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Four Nations, One System

Craig Dalzell

A fascinating story has emerged out of the UK Covid inquiry this week revealing that then-PM Boris Johnson refused to hold meetings with the heads of the devolved governments for fear of elevating their positions from one of subservience to counterparts. He’s reportedly said that he didn’t want the UK to look like “a mini-EU of four nations”. He was also – rightly – very concerned about the blanket, daily press coverage that Nicola Sturgeon claimed throughout the pandemic (and surely noted that his own attempts to do the same met with far less public acclaim).

I know memories are rapidly fading of that time but on the face of it, this does chime with a lot of what we saw at the time where coordination in practice seemed to be much more reactive than proactive but it also throws up a major question with regards to why the Scottish Government clung desperately to the “four nations” approach to Covid long after it was apparently to them that the UK was simply not playing the same game.
I also wrote extensively about this during the pandemic for our then-sister publication Source News – the archives of my articles can still be read here – and I want to draw you towards one in particular from October 2020 in which I led with the line ‘At what point do we admit that Scotland’s Covid strategy amounts to “do what Boris Johnson does, but tweak it slightly and say it nicer”?’

At the time, we had recently published our policy paper “Warning Lights” a plan for a localised, tiered response to the pandemic drawn from best practice across the world. At the time, Scotland was itself running a “one nation” approach of total and uniform lockdowns without much in the way of control of isolated outbreaks. The paper was more-or-less dismissed by the Government but, following the UK itself adopting something similar, Scotland ended up following suit alongside them. In the end, virtually every recommendation in Warning Lights was adopted as Scottish Covid policy – albeit late, incompletely and relatively ineffectively. People died as a result of that political failure.

Our warnings went back further than this paper though reporting in April 2020 that the “Scottish approach” had no substantive differences in it to the UK pandemic strategy despite claims by the Scottish Government to the contrary and further back still – in March 2020, just days before the first lockdown – Robin McAlpine warned that politicians in Scotland and across the UK were hiding behind a kind of “political herd immunity” where so-called “leaders” were reluctant to do anything that might come back on them negatively if it was at all possible to do instead do nothing and let someone else shoulder that risk.

We saw the results of this week’s relationship breakdown play out throughout this. Johnson clearly wasn’t listening – was explicitly ignoring – advice from devolved administrations in favour of simply making his own proclamations. Sturgeon would then repeat that proclamation to Scotland (often a day or two earlier – taking advantage of Johnson’s need to announce the measure in Parliament before the press and her ability to bend or break the rules compelling her to do the same – and thus stealing the PR march on any perceived positive step). Any backlash could, of course, be blamed on the “four nations” approach – and thus on Johnson.

But the lack of communication and a fundamental disagreement in mindset put the Scottish and UK Governments at odds with each other nonetheless. Johnson, it’s been revealed, claims he regrets not using civil emergency powers to impose authority across the entire UK instead of leaving powers with devolved governments. But Sturgeon clearly didn’t really want to use her powers in case she got blamed for doing so (remember how Mark Drakeford, to the “disappointment” of Johnson, closed the Welsh border whereas Sturgeon said she couldn’t, then said she would, but didn’t enforce the closure when she did). Yes, she would have raised holy hell at a “Johnson power grab”, but she clearly wouldn’t have held on to the powers very tightly either.

We know this because while there were, in the end, some differences and divergences in the Covid policies though all of these were swept away by the rollout of a “one country, one system” vaccine programme (which I’m not criticising per se – the first year of that was just about the only thing the UK did right throughout the pandemic). Johnson got his power, Sturgeon let go of her responsibility, everyone was happy – except those who died in the pandemic, lost loved ones or were left with long term health issues. The UK – just weeks before Covid emerged declared the 2nd most pandemic-ready country in the world – ended up in the Top 20 in terms of deaths per million, with over a quarter of a million people losing their lives and a death rate almost four times the global average.

The result of that failure was not due to infrastructure, nor to geography or demographics, nor to surprise or fluke of chance. It was entirely political and based on the choices of several political leaders in their own ways and to suit their own ends to pursue political, policy and strategic paths that maximised their own political gain and minimise possible political harm.
If and when the Covid inquiries return their almost inevitable conclusion calling for lessons to be learned I can only hope this is one of them and that unlike almost every public inquiry that has come before them, this time it will be.

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