| Boris Johnson only speaks for England. But for many people across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, that will not be clear today. Because the Prime Minister did not actually explain in his televised address last night that the partial end of the lockdown he was announcing was not for the whole of the UK. Johnson appears to have accepted devolved leadership on the Covid-19 public health response in practice (at least for now), while retaining the right to grand-stand for the whole of the UK in public. Whatever the text-books say about clear public health messaging, I’m sure it’s not that. |
And if you are in England, there’s a good chance you will be left confused about what to do today. Because Johnson’s speech was remarkable for how little it had to say about the things people really need to know. If social distancing is not possible at work, should you still go in? We don’t know, because no updated workplace environmental health & safety guidance has been published. If you must use public transport to get to work, and can’t take up the Prime Minister’s suggestion to use a bicycle instead, should you still cram into over-crowded tubes, buses and trains this morning? We don’t know, because the updated public transport guidance hasn’t been published yet. What if you’re pregnant? What if you have kids? Johnson was deliberately evasive about all of these issues because what he really wanted to say was that he was “actively encouraging you to go back to work”. Those eight words were the real substance of the PM’s speech, the rest of it was finding excuses to put workers at risk without saying as much. You are not supposed to know answers to critical questions about your health, you are just supposed to “stay alert”. As lecturer in global public health at University College London Rochelle Burgess said, the new strategy “individualises risk and ignores structural and relational environments that determine behaviours and outcomes”.
The fissures between devolved administrations and No 10 are now a serious crisis of the UK state. Since the public health response clearly takes precedence and is now led from Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, the reserved parts of government which remain in lockstep with Whitehall are now a major liability for the Scottish, Welsh and NI governments. The most critical risk is the centralised control of the furlough scheme, because if Chancellor Rishi Sunak decides to begin winding down the payment of wages for 6.8 million UK workers (370,000 in Scotland), that de facto brings the lockdown to an end, as the hand of millions of workers are forced (if they have a job to return to at all). One report has statedthat Sunak will move as early as Tuesday to begin the process of ending the furlough scheme. The First Minister Nicola Sturgeon must demand a devolved administration veto on any changes to the furlough scheme if the credibility of the Scottish lockdown is to be maintained.
The UK Government’s control of border policing at airports is also a liability, with Johnson making the astounding claim last night that now is the correct time to quarantine people coming off flights into the UK because case numbers are low, as if halting the spread of the virus for the past two months would have been a waste of time. Employment law at UK level is another source of weakness, meaning the powers to give employees decision-making authority in whether a workplace is safe to return are reserved. Some of us have argued for years that any ‘benefits’ from being part of a single UK state, like ease of trade across these islands, are massively outweighed by the fact that the UK state consistently takes governance decisions which are not in the interests of the majority of people. The importance of the quality of democracy and effective governance is the difference between Britain and its 42,900+ excess deaths and Norway with its no excess deaths.
One scientific advisor on Sage told The Sunday Times that Britain could end up suffering more than 100,000 deaths if it leaves lockdown too quickly. The contact tracing system is not yet ready, with reports that the government is looking to switch from its Android NHSx app to an Apple/Google one it previously rejected, because NHSx apparently doesn’t work. As the former WHO Director Anthony Costello has put it, England seven weeks on from lockdown has “a vertical and outsourced test, trace, isolate fiasco”.
“The disastrous March 12 herd immunity strategy has led to public health and economic chaos,” Costello added.
Scotland has already paid too high a toll from “the consistent UK four nations” approach that the Scottish Government eagerly embraced at the start of this crisis. Now, as the four nations crack apart, it is crystal clear that was never necessary. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon must now take the idea of ‘act as if you’re independent’ seriously, and work out how to make the best of the devolved resources she has to meet the essential needs of all in lockdown, so people can continue to stay at home and save lives.
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