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The clear intention of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, up to now, has been to move in a coordinated way out of this crisis. The benefits of pulling in the same direction are clear in a country with four nations, hundreds of miles of shared border, and tangled legal, political and media environments.
Clearly, a coordinated approach need not mean a totally uniform one, and some flexibility has been necessary and desirable throughout. For that to work though, it requires crystal clarity from the prime minister on the justification for changes, and clear communication between the nations and regions well in advance, so decisions don’t cause confusion. This, after all, is a virus that thrives on ambiguity.
That’s why the approach from Number 10 over the change to public health messaging over the weekend was not only disrespectful but damaging and, frankly, deeply concerning.
Leaders in the devolved nations found out about the UK government’s new message, an essential accessory to maintaining public compliance, via a Sunday paper. This unilateral change made, astonishingly, without consultation with the leaders in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, was preceded by days of ill-disciplined briefing.
This is the exact opposite of the kind of approach that should accompany a significant shift in public health strategy, in the middle of a lethal pandemic. There will, of course, be those that argue the message isn’t what matters; but it is precisely because the message matters that the UK government has decided to change it.
That’s why this shift hasn’t just sown confusion, but doubt too.
Many wonder, if the “stay-at-home” approach is right for Belfast, then why not Bristol? If the Welsh Government are certain “staying at home is the best way to protect yourself and others”, why not Downing Street?
The mortality rate remains significantly higher in England than elsewhere in the UK; and the devolved nations share an expert evidence base with the UK government through SAGE, so the decision by the prime minister to go it alone raises serious questions.
We want the government to get this right, but the prime minister needs to act quickly to rectify these mistakes.
Clarity on this matters, because the risks of a ragged divergence between the UK should be foremost in the prime minister’s mind, and the failure in communication and coordination from Number 10 with the devolved nations makes pulling in the same direction out of this crisis much harder to achieve.
This is already having real, practical consequences. His silence in the address to the nation on the fact many of the measures he was announcing applied only to England was damaging. The Welsh Counsel General had to spend Monday morning clearing up after the prime minister, reminding those driving from England that they will be liable for fines if they break the restrictions that remain in force in Wales.
Given their presence at COBR and the participation in the SAGE structure, there really is little excuse for the failure to inform and engage the nations and regions and communicate effectively with them. They will have seen what the rest of the public have since Sunday; a clear message that has given way to a muddled strategy from Number 10.
We want the government to get this right, but the prime minister needs to act quickly to rectify these mistakes. In future, they must provide absolute clarity on the territorial scope of decisions being announced by the U.K. Government, stating explicitly whether decision apply to England only in all communications, verbal and written.
He must share the details of any change in approach and message with the devolved nations and regions, well in advance. Where divergence occurs, he must work with the devolved nations and regions to clearly communicate the divergence and the steps people should take to avoid falling foul of the different rules.
And he needs to work harder to make sure the decisions made in Westminster work for the devolved nations. There has been virtually zero detail, for instance, on how the testing app will work in the border counties of Northern Ireland, where villages straddle the border and two different apps may be in use; and applications for the government’s self-employment support schemes online haven’t recognised Irish passports, overlooking that under the Good Friday Agreement citizens in Northern Ireland are entitled to carry only an Irish passport.
This week has shone a bright light on the government’s apparent inability to communicate and coordinate, so the whole UK can pull in the same direction. This confusion cannot go on and if the government does not change its approach soon, the whole of the UK will suffer.
Louise Haigh is Labour MP for Sheffield Heeley and shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland.