The COVID-19 Pandemic: a proxy for the UK devolution debate

COVID-19 has undeniably tested the UK’s constitutional settlement as a devolved nation. Between London, Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh, the decisions regarding the pandemic have, at times, been very different. Some scholars have argued the pandemic has exposed Westminster’s ‘top-down approach’ to law-making. The UK’s centralised governance has come to light during this pandemic, as has Westminster’s shaky decision-making. 

Restrictions and the law

Closing down non-essential shops, wearing face coverings, closing hospitality, and making working from home compulsory – these are just some of the laws Westminster has declared in the past year. A decision to enforce a UK-wide lockdown on the 23rd of March 2020 is arguably one of the only collective decisions, as per the Corona Virus Action Plan. Yet, soon after the opinion of the four governments split, as policy regarding COVID-19 began to be considered independently.

Emergency powers allowing the nations to deal with the pandemic are set out in different legislations. For England and Wales, it is the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, while the Public Health etc. Act 2008 gives such powers to Scotland, and the Public Health Act 1967 for Northern Ireland. Scotland introduced further legislation to help deal with the pandemic, through the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act, which among other things, protected tenants from evictions. It is through the law that this pandemic has tested the UK’s devolution settlements, by showing the ability of devolved legislatures to create tailored responses to COVID-19. 

A devolved matter, health law has allowed distinct responses to the pandemic. Indeed, the Corona Virus Act 2020 widened the remit of such devolved legislatures, so as to allow them more power to respond to the pandemic, according to national needs. Devolved ministers were able to close educational establishments among other things. Such changes have produced a bright line between state borders with regards to the severity of restrictions. For example, at the end of 2020, the Welsh minister enforced a lockdown, preventing ‘people from COVID-19 hot-spots in the UK from entering’. At the same time, Scotland announced it would move into a five-tier system whilst Northern Ireland lengthened its lockdown. Legitimately, these governments coulddid and still continue to take different measures. 

A desirable divergence?

Ultimately, the different rules also allowed for each nation to respond appropriately to regional circumstances. Sometimes these divergences may have also been political – for example, England choosing to ease restrictions last year more quickly so as to speed up the recovery of the economy. Yet such differences often left the public confused, making them wonder if ministers were listening to scientific advice or simply acting as they pleased. The divergences also posed difficulties for businesses operating UK-wide in following and complying with the different rules. The different approaches to the pandemic also made people realise the extent of the powers devolved legislatures hold. Arguably, these divisions were always there; the pandemic simply brought them to people’s attention. 

Local leaders

These issues are not limited to devolved governments. Even local authorities have previously opposed laws and regulations imposed by Westminster, ‘demanding more powers and a seat at the table where decisions are made’. Each time, Westminster has appeared to ignore calls from these so-called ‘metro mayors’ for greater control over their localities. For example, leaders in the North West refused to place their constituencies into the highest level of COVID-19 restrictions after parliament had allocated different tiers to each area of the UK. Previously dismissing the use of lockdowns, PM Boris Johnson believed it was best to put different areas of the country into different levels of restrictions dependent upon the number of COVID cases, ‘strong-arming’ them into accepting. 

This is the British system – local authorities have some say over matters, but ultimately, the power rests with parliament and local governance is very limited indeed. Yet this piecemeal approach to devolution has left gaps, and the pandemic has only highlighted the limited powers of local authorities, particularly when compared with the devolved nations. Local authorities have repeatedly demanded more power, yet Westminster simply does not seem to listen. 

What have we learnt from this pandemic? 

As far as what Westminster has learnt, that is a question for another time. But in terms of what this pandemic has highlighted, it is that Westminster does not always know best. It does not listen so much to local authorities because it does not have to. The response to COVID-19 was unequal throughout the UK and effective government liaisons could have made such a response more cohesive. 

This is not to say that there must be ‘complete uniformity’ throughout the UK. One should always remember that different nations usually have slightly different circumstances. Instead, better co-ordination between the devolved nations and Westminster with the sharing of information and intergovernmental meetings, as well as the ability to compromise, is crucial. To act in the interest of all UK nationals, consensus on a way forward should be reached. 

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