The fragmentation of Britain’s COVID-19 ‘lockdown’ strategy has been apparent since the virus first hit the country. The start of social isolation and economic shutdown may have been uniformly implemented across the UK on 23 March but, as different countries within the union start to emerge from lockdown, each region seems to have chosen a strikingly individual route out. It may turn out that this global disease normalises more policy decisions being made at the regional level in Britain.
Do I stay at home or stay alert? Over the last few months, varying demands such as these from the UK’s different political bodies have supplied the nation with a generous helping of confusion (and, in some instances, hysteria). Yet a united response to the pandemic may not necessarily be the best way to defeat it. Centralised government control should roll back, in order for local areas to better assess the threat of the virus there and administer the necessary steps to stop it from spreading.
The fluctuation of the R number across Britain
Westminster granted sub-national bodies greater independence as it became clear that the coronavirus R rate – the rate at which the disease is spreading – varied greatly in different communities. London’s mid-May infection rate, between 0.6 and 0.9, put it at slightly safer levels than Scotland’s estimations which lay somewhere between 0.7 and 1.
Scientific evidence suggests that if the R number is consistently below 1, slower transmission levels of the virus would eventually eradicate it from the nation. However, cases would inevitably exponentially grow if the number crept above 1. In this instance, the removal of a harsh lockdown would only allow the disease to embed itself deeper into the lives of the population. Consequently, Scotland’s predicament demanded a later lifting of its lockdown due to the teetering position of its R number of around 1.
The biological effect of COVID-19 only accounts for a fraction of the havoc it has wreaked on humanity. Education, finance, and social interaction have all been affected. This is fundamentally why Boris Johnson has had to cede so many of his Cabinet’s powers to separate governments in the devolved nations of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
Prioritising the reopening of certain regions first
London accounts for 23% of the entire UK economy and a 2018 City of London study found that the capital employed 1 in 59 British workers. It would have been economically unproductive for London, and the rest of England, to wait for Scotland’s transmission rate to be suppressed and for the two countries to come out of lockdown at a unified date. A financial and employment hub like London could not dawdle lifting measures when scientists announced that it was safe for England to begin the gradual reopening of its economy, especially when it was revealed that Rishi Sunak’s furlough scheme was costing upwards of £14bn each month.
When combined, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland account for just 15% of UK GDP. Scotland may have contributed £1.2bn in oil revenue to the nation’s economy in 2018, but that same year a nearly a fifth of its population were economically inactive.
Devolved bodies do contribute billions to the UK’s economy and their economies need to be reopened, but their politicians have erred on the side of caution. From a health perspective, Scotland was unable to follow England’s timetable of easing lockdown, but England’s economic output into the nation’s economy perhaps emphasised its need to open sooner. Ultimately, autonomy was granted for local leaders to better scrutinise the scope of their region’s infection rate and do what was best for either the public health or the economy.
However, it is also tempting to subscribe to a more cynical perspective that delegation of power has allowed central government to escape a degree of accountability. With figures such as Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford holding down separate forts, any failures in their lockdown strategies will leave a clear direction for their electorates to point the finger .
The threat posed by the virus is not an easily dismissed issue. Public safety and higher levels of government scrutiny are deeply intertwined. Ultimately, a centralised approach from Westminster would undermine the varying needs of different communities across the UK. It may well be that the pandemic convinces more people of this.
Emily Wilson studies Politics and International Relations at the University of Manchester.