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Written by Professor Michael Kenny

Territorial governance and the coronavirus crisis

One notable feature of the ongoing policy response to the coronavirus crisis in the UK has been the appearance of close co-ordination between the different governments within its borders. By Michael Kenny and Jack Sheldon.

Some commentators have asked if this has opened up a new, more co-operative, chapter in the relationship between the British state and the Scottish government. It is certainly possible that the current crisis has unearthed a common political interest among the devolved governments in being seen to set aside their differences with London and respond to the crisis in a co-ordinated fashion. But while the incentives for co-operation are currently strong, there are countervailing dynamics too, and it is possible that co-operation could give way to greater divergence before too long.

Although health policy is devolved to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, many of the key decisions in response to the pandemic have been agreed on a UK-wide basis, through meetings of the COBR emergency committee chaired by the Prime Minister and attended by the leaders of the devolved governments. Key announcements have then been made in parallel. Boris Johnson’s TV broadcast announcing the ‘lockdown’ on 23rd March was immediately followed by similarly worded statements from Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford, and Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill.

This apparently united front has been particularly striking when contrasted with the  preceding period of extremely turbulent intergovernmental relationships, given major differences over Brexit and the Scottish government’s push for a second independence referendum. The devolved governments have frequently complained that their interests and perspectives have been ignored, and institutional mechanisms for intergovernmental co-ordination have been widely criticised.

The current crisis has initially created a more co-operative context. Boris Johnson’s government moved to invite the leaders of the devolved governments into the COBR process when it was first convened to discuss coronavirus. Meanwhile the Scottish government announced a ‘pause’ to its preparations for a second independence referendum, in recognition of the need to focus its attention and resources on the pandemic. And, all of the devolved governments supported legislative consent motions for the Coronavirus Bill, which provided the legislative basis for an array of emergency powers – in stark contrast to their refusal to do the same with the Brexit legislation that passed through parliament a few weeks previously. The imperative to co-operate in these circumstances may serve as a reminder of how intertwined, and indeed interdependent, the different parts of Great Britain still are, especially when faced with a common foe.

What is striking about the current context is that intergovernmental working has been much more embedded in the policy-making process than is usually the case. Several of the flashpoints during the Brexit process came after the UK government announced policies or published key documents without having  consulted the devolved governments in advance. But the current crisis has necessitated pretty extensive co-ordination among different tiers of government right from the start, at both official and ministerial levels. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) has brought together the key medical and scientific advisers to each government, producing a common evidence-base for politicians to consider at COBR. At the first coronavirus  meeting of this body attended by the devolved governments on 2nd March an action plan was agreed by all the governments, outlining the steps that might be taken as the outbreak developed. Later meetings of COBR in this intergovernmental format have similarly led to agreed actions, drawing on the joint evidence-base provided by SAGE. This has meant that at times when the UK approach to the pandemic has been subject to political criticism, particularly prior to the introduction of stricter social distancing measures, the devolved governments have publicly defended the common position and the evidence behind it – and in so doing have provided significant cover for Boris Johnson’s administration.   

But all may not be quite as harmonious as it seems. There have been small, but notable, differences in the timing of some announcements, as the Institute for Government has observed. The Scottish government announced a ban on large gatherings two days before similar steps were taken elsewhere. Northern Ireland and Scotland also suspended criminal jury trials before England and Wales. Non-essential construction sites in Scotland have been asked to close, but there has not yet been any such edict in England. While these do not represent fundamental differences in overall strategy, and in some cases may reflect particular factors in the devolved territories that do not apply in England, they do hint at the possibility that there is less cohesion in private than has been displayed in public.

The Scottish government, in particular, retains a strong incentive to exercise and demonstrate its own autonomy from its UK counterpart. While the temporary hospitals in England and Northern Ireland have been branded as ‘Nightingale’ hospitals, that in Glasgow has instead been named after Louisa Jordan, a Scottish nurse who died during the First World War, a move that precipitated some fairly predictable sharp criticisms from pro-Union politicians.

In Northern Ireland the deputy First Minister, Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill, has at times indicated support for an all-Ireland rather than all-UK approach. This approach has stirred some sharp  divisions between unionists and nationalists within the fragile Northern Ireland Executive, especially when Ireland was pursuing stricter ‘lockdown’ measures before the UK moved in line – and could have real, longer-term consequences for the devolved administration that has just been re-established in Belfast.

And, finally, the Welsh government has complained forcefully that as a smaller government it has been disadvantaged in competing for the supply of coronavirus tests with the UK government. This led to a crisis meeting of health ministers and an agreement to co-ordinate future purchases. This issue too may have sown the seeds for future conflict.

None of these issues have as yet led to a major public breakdown in relations between these governments, however tense things may be behind the scenes. And at the moment there is one overriding reason why this is the case – the current approach adopted by these administrations  elicits  high levels of public support. But should that situation change, and if the UK’s approach to the pandemic does not achieve its primary aims of reducing rates of infection, hospitalisation and mortality from coronavirus, in comparison with other countries, the incentive to break ranks might well emerge. If that were to happen, the current crisis could have an important spill-over effect on future relationships between different layers of government in the UK.  

  • About the author

    Professor Michael Kenny, Inaugural Director, the Bennett Institute for Public Policy

    Professor Kenny directs the Institute’s place and public policy programme.   Learn more

    Mike Kenny