✏️ Nathan Hine
The coronavirus crisis has highlighted the differences between the devolved administrations (that is the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments) in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland compared to the government in Westminster. With the pandemic highlighting the importance of regional decision-making, could this lead to a new way of governing Britain?
While the decision of lockdown was taken in March as a whole United Kingdom with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland adhering to the same lockdown rules as England; the UK has emerged from lockdown earlier. The devolved administrations maintained a full lockdown for longer.
The first move from Westminster came in May, which allowed people to take unlimited daily exercise and people were encouraged to go back to work where they could not work from home. What followed was confusion with the government’s messaging of ‘Stay Alert’ which caused widespread concern, especially among areas with higher coronavirus infection rates such as the North West.
At the time, directly Elected Mayor for the Greater Manchester Combined Authority Andy Burnham told the BBC: “People are being encouraged to return to work today but we don’t have all the guidance for how best to run public transport – not everybody has a car. So some people will feel in a vulnerable position if they’re forced on to public transport without the necessary procedures in place. This is why I’m saying it was rushed, this feels to me as though it’s not been properly thought through.”
Later in May, the rolling average for the North West still saw just over 2000 people in hospital as a result of COVID-19, but with the rest of England at a point where the government felt further easing of restrictions were acceptable, the decision was taken. Under a more regional approach, the leaders and decision makers of England’s regions should have had the ability to either accept the decision by the government or to maintain the lockdown in their area. This raises the question of why Scotland and Wales have the ability to make their own decision, but huge swathes of England do not have that same power?
By contrast to England, the first steps to easing lockdown in Scotland and Wales were not taken until late May. There has been a huge divergence in rules implemented over the pandemic, so should the regions in England have the similar powers as the devolved administrations to make critical decisions?
At the moment, there is a system of English devolution courtesy of the seven combined authority areas outside London: Cambridgeshire and Peterborough; Greater Manchester Combined Authority; Liverpool City Region; North East; Sheffield City Region; Tees Valley; West Midlands Combined Authority; West of England and West Yorkshire – all of whom have limited power to make decisions as per an agreement with the government on things such as transport and housing.
But as Britain prepares for a post-corona age, surely it is time that the regions and nations have more power, with less power concentrated in London. For instance, in Leicester, where there was an acknowledged spike in coronavirus cases from June 15 saw the Department of Health work with the local Director of Public Health to advise people to take extra care. Then on the weekend of June 27/28, the government without warning informed the local health authority on Sunday night of a local lockdown with effect from Monday morning.
Therefore, this situation was not helped by the central government depriving the local authority of information and ultimately any decisions resided in London. The Department of Health and Social Care did not provide pillar two testing data (all those tested outside hospital and care settings) to the local council until June 25, some eleven days after declaring a local outbreak in Leicester.
It took until 20th June for a second testing centre to be created at Spinney Park which saw an inevitable increase in coronavirus cases, but after initial localised measures failed to work, it was the government who made the call about lockdown- without first briefing the mayor and in contrast to the Public Health England Advice which said: “Delaying July 4th 2020 relaxation actions in Leicester and enhancement of enforcement or monitoring of social distancing guidelines for at least two weeks to allow the impact of the above measures to be assessed.”
On the morning the lockdown was announced, Mayor of Leicester Sir Peter Soulsby was not convinced that Leicester needed a lockdown, saying that the figures they were provided with in the report he received were not sufficient. He said: “These measures are stricter than we anticipated but we understand the need for firm action. I am determined that we will make this work and to minimise the time these additional measures need to be in place in the city. “We will of course continue to play our part in keeping people in the city safe and healthy.” The figures obtained by the city council show that there were 944 reported cases in the last two weeks before the lockdown.
With a further reintroduction of restrictions on much of Northern England just hours before Eid (a religious holiday celebrated by Muslims which marks the end of the month-long dawn-to-sunset fasting of Ramadan) this approach of central government over local government decision-making control could well be a feature of the next phase of the pandemic. It comes down to where power lies. Throughout the pandemic, central government seems to have hoarded power despite the very fluid and dynamic situation which seems to lend itself to a very localised response.
So while the structure of central government and the winner takes all system has worked in the past with local government having very little power, in the new post-corona world, the way Britain and in particular England is governed needs great attention to meet the needs of modern Britain.
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