Devolving the pandemic response was a tragic error that weaponised it

WHEN IT COMES to learning lessons from the UK’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020-22 one of the least talked about in London but most important for those furthest away from the capital is how not just the management but also the policy was devolved to Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh. The result of taking that decision – and there was the option to manage the response very differently – was that overnight, and for the duration, the regional politicians weaponised their pandemic responses and all too often exploited the opportunities to promote themselves while fomenting blame for their opponents – chiefly the London Government. 

With a Conservative Government in London, a Labour administration in Cardiff, an SNP Government on Edinburgh and a power-sharing executive of Sinn Fein/DUP in Belfast – and parliamentary elections in Scotland and Wales due in May 2021 – the potential for political grandstanding was self-evident – and sadly it was embraced with alacrity.

A more shameful episode of the pandemic, costly in both lives and scarce resources is harder to find in the entire two years – and that’s quite a condemnation. This is not to let the UK Government off the hook, it often took some very poor decisions, but nearly all of them were then repeated in the regional capitals too – with added gusto. When London did go down the wrong path it was often replicated to a worse degree, with the UK Government being asked to pick up the cost.

Much of this core problem at a strategic level was not initially noticed, because at first some of the data suggested the regional capitals were getting better results. This led many metropolitan commentators who would only look at the superficial level to then applaud Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford, without seeking out the truth of what might be happening on the ground in Glasgow or Swansea. There is a particular danger of drawing the wrong conclusions by those quick to judge after being informed by the inbuilt confirmation bias of their curated Twitter feeds, or relying on the banalities of already filtered broadcast news they inhabit and consume.

While we would (eventually) hear criticism of the policy of emptying hospital beds of the old and infirm into care homes – without first testing for covid – until the government eventually realised its mistake and halted the practice on April 10, nobody was asking why the policy continued in Scotland for another ten days, undoubtedly contributing to the far worse number of deaths pro-rata occurring in Scottish care homes. 

As a Scot living in England for the entirety of the lockdowns but with my 90-year-old mother in Edinburgh and a son living in Glasgow I naturally took a great deal of interest in the difference in pandemic responses. What often caused me to despair as I watched the occasional Downing Street briefings drove me instead towards utter frustration and anger as the daily ‘Nicola Show’ attained new levels of playing up to the ‘strong leader’ phenomenon. 

Let me sum up what it meant; if England was to have a new restriction (decided and shared at a CoBRA meeting early in the morning) invariably it would be announced in Scotland by Sturgeon first, before the evening briefing at Downing Street, possibly with an earlier date of introduction or a later date of ending – the desired effect being to demonstrate Scotland’s administration was taking a lead, was more cautious and less cavalier. If there was to be a financial scheme to help business then it would have to be rebranded as a Scottish Government scheme, possibly with a new name, a saltire and significant delay in being introduced and different criteria to be met. 

Even simple communications such as “Hands, Face, Space” had to be Scottified and changed to the less memorable and therefore ineffective FACTS acronym that stood for – Face coverings in enclosed spaces, Avoid crowded places, Clean your hands and surfaces          regularly, Two-metre social distancing, and Self-isolate and book a test if you develop coronavirus symptoms. Three words became thirty! And you have forgotten it already.

In Scotland the pandemic started with its introduction by attendees of a Nike employees’ conference in Edinburgh in February 2020. No sooner was it identified than its presence was quickly hushed up and key authorities in England were not told – allowing people to go back their jobs without any knowledge they were now carriers or be traced afterwards. Seeing the pandemic as a political issue to involve the suppression of inconvenient information was to sum up the next two years.

The money to pay for all the schemes to relieve the economic impact of lockdowns and funded by UK treasury borrowing or Bank of England quantitative easing would be sent north to the administrative capitals but spent differently – causing small businesses to close rather than reopen, wrecking livelihoods and inevitably contributing to suicides. Even the Nightingale hospitals had to have different names to show they were different. 

Masks in schools were always dictated by the relative power of the teachers’ unions – and in Scotland those unions are even more powerful – thus the devolved government simply went along with their demands. Consequently, the issue of masks in schools has often been more pronounced and they are still in secondaries even now and going to continue for the foreseeable. 

Then there were the various periods of liberation or loosening of the rules – always delayed in Scotland. We also had differences in approach to the administering of the vaccine leading to the British Army being brought in to help save the day, with the First Minister studiously avoiding using the word “British”. It was all so childish and really so sad.

Comparisons between the Scottish and English data was incessant, and if the facts no longer benefitted creating a difference then new facts would be given priority. Encouraged by loose xenophobic comments from Sturgeon and other ministers we had blood and soil nationalists gathering at the A1 at Berwick, the M6/M74 at Gretna and at Edinburgh Airport waving flags and banners telling English people not to come to Scotland. Scottish Government criticism there was none.

We then had the appalling treatment of the hospitality industry, rule changes at short notice and extended periods of closure while similar businesses in England were open, as well as arbitrary rules about no singing and no dancing that visitors to Scotland from already liberated countries could not comprehend. The crowning moment of difference was when the Omicron variant arrived in Britain and before it could be evaluated Scotland’s “Chief Mammy” as she refers to herself, shutdown hospitality again as it prepared for the 2021 Christmas and New Year season – effectively killing the New Year’s Eve business in Scotland of all places. 

And to what effect? Although the cost of Covid-19 in infections, hospitalisations and deaths initially appeared better in Scotland it did not last and now many of the key measurements are showing as worse. The excess deaths figures recently published in the Lancet study showed Scotland with no appreciably better outcomes from firmer and more extensive lockdowns or longer mask mandates. Indeed Sturgeon’s insistence on masks continuing in Scotland provided a rare opportunity for a mass study, and it showed England foregoing them and having lower cases than a Scotland that kept them and saw its cases climbing. 

For reasons of length I have not attempted to provide specific dates, details around people or statements and numbers from the medical data, but merely to give a flavour, a summary of how the divergent approaches sowed confusion, resulted in unnecessary logistical problems causing delays and ultimately caused more people to suffer and die that would have otherwise have been necessary. It will be for the Public Inquiry to go into the details of what happened and why, and as this blog’s editor I shall be giving space to the detail that throws the antiseptic of light so we can expose the truth.

Most if not all of the foregoing could have been avoided by the UK Government deciding to use its national emergency powers under the Civil Contingencies Act for the whole of the UK rather than choosing to use the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 which inevitably meant that, because public health is a devolved responsibility, the devolved administrations took the role of deciding policy as well as administering the delivery of health and policing services. The opportunities for political grandstanding would have been considerably fewer and the likelihood of public confusion and additional logistical chokepoints reduced.

The public Inquiry must look at this issue, for we cannot allow any such pandemic response to be run with ‘governments’ at war with themselves while the public looks for clarity and speed. The terms of reference are broad enough to include questions about this matter but having a specific reference about this early and seminal decision may be required. I shall therefore be writing to the consultation to flag my concerns. If you are concerned about it too, or have other concerns you fear the Inquiry might not give enough attention to I urge you to write also. The Consultation can be responded to by 7 April at this link.

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Brian Monteith is a former member of the Scottish and European Parliaments and managing editor of the Time for Recovery blog.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon with F.A.C.T.S sign by Scottish Government – COVID-19 press conference – 20 April 2021, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=104118687