Painfully and suddenly all in a rush, under pressure of the Covid pandemic we’re witnessing the development of power sharing throughout England that has wider implications for the whole UK. The pandemic will stretch well into next year. The infection rate is about to equal or exceed last March’s. The strains imposed on government and by government are tightening.
From having a rate of infection per 100,000 people of 11.4 in the week up to August 15, well below the EU average of 20.5 and the US rate of 110.7, the UK’s positive case rate has now exceeded both the EU and US totals. It stands at 133.7, higher than the US rate of 96.9 and the EU rate of 77.2.
You can do your local maths, as Boris almost said. Ironically there is little disagreement over the principle of lockdown and that a balance must be struck between the risk of infection and the survival of the economy. Another national lockdown is not to be contemplated, at least not for now.
What’s new is that all solutions now are to be locally endorsed and refined. This requires a huge shift of mindset over how the UK is run. As we now know, politics and not epidemiology alone is heavily in play. The prize is the compliance of the public with whatever is decided, to prevent the pandemic running out of control. The framework will be set in Whitehall, while implementation or a great part if it will be decided locally – starting almost immediately. The ripple effects will take in the whole UK.
From Sky News. England is expected to be carved into three different lockdown tiers next week, with millions of people facing tougher restrictions as the government tries to get a handle on rising coronavirus cases and hospital admissions… Pubs, restaurants and leisure facilities are expected to be closed in parts of the North put into the strictest tier, according to two sources who have seen blueprints of the current plans.
We’ve seen how Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland have differed from England, noticeably over timing and other important detail but basically less so than it might have appeared. The politics is slippery. The devolved know that whatever they decide the UK government picks up most of the tab and the blame for failure.
The political editor of the Spectator James Forsyth has contributed a masterly analysis.
Because it was being done under public health regulations, the rules in the four parts of the UK differed: at one stage, returnees from Portugal had to quarantine if they flew into Cardiff, the rules in the four parts of the UK differed: at one stage, returnees from Portugal had to quarantine if they flew into Cardiff, but but not London City Airport. For those with a political interest in the disaggregation of the United Kingdom, these tensions also serve a political purpose. ‘The SNP are seizing the opportunity to make a very clear and distinctive point about borders,’ warns one cabinet minister.
For all these reasons, the Prime Minister is keen to keep as much as much of as much of a UK-wide approach going as possible. Officials from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are now all invited to a weekly meeting of the cabinet’s Covid Operations committee and there’ll be a summit with them to discuss winter preparedness.
One other area of tension is the Welsh government’s desire to refuse entry to people from Covid hotspots such as Manchester or Liverpool. Johnson has rejected the idea, but if the Welsh continue pushing, the UK government might feel obliged to let them have their way. One of those involved in government discussions on the matter tells me that there is concern about what continuing to reject this request might mean. I’m told that in Whitehall there’s ‘real fear about what such a move would do to the nationalist movement in Wales and Scotland’. So the UK is pulled all directions
A frequent Westminster complaint is that the devolved administrations don’t have to balance health and the economy in the way that the UK government does because almost all taxes are collected (and money borrowed) nationally. One of those intimately involved in the UK Covid response laments that the devolveds ‘have a particular interest in locking down as they don’t pay the bills’. This is going to become a particularly acute problem as the furlough scheme comes to an end. There is going to have to be some support put in place for those businesses, and their employees, that are closed again in any local lockdowns. The risk is that Sturgeon takes a much more precautionary approach, shutting far more places, and then has firms and their workers sending in requests to the Treasury for help.
Arlene Foster, the Northern Ireland First Minister, has a solution to this problem. In discussions, she has suggested that the four nations agree on a threshold of cases per 100,000 at which UK support would kick in. This wouldn’t stop the devolved administrations from applying more stringent restrictions, but it would mean that if they did, it wouldn’t be the Treasury who would end up picking the bill. Meanwhile (Andy) Burnham, (mayor of Greater Manchester) is arguing for more financial support for northerners facing restrictions — absence of such support, he says, will be a double whammy. ‘We are being levelled down, not up,’ he complained recently. ‘This can’t continue, because if it does it will make the recovery so much harder in Greater Manchester.’
We do not agree nor do we accept financial package.... [We are] Asking our MPs across the north to bring about situation next week where parliament can express its view on whether this package … is fair. If this fails, I wouldn’t rule out a legal challenge. It’s that serious.
Dan Jarvis, the Labour MP and Sheffield mayor, described the government response as a “top-down overly centralised approach that has not been as effective as it has been”.
He said “frustrations bubbled over this week” when the government briefed journalists but did not consult local political leaders. “We are part of the solution and need to be involved at an early point in the government decision-making process.”
He said he agrees with others that economic packages “won’t go nearly far enough” and said large portions of business community would be “struggling to survive”.
Steve Rotheram, the mayor of the Liverpool metro region, said the government would announce on Monday that the city will go into tier 3 lockdown on Wednesday.
Most journalists will understand our incredulity and dismay at having to have a press conference. Our priority has … we will support measures no matter how politically difficult they might be to support our residents.
At Westminster Conservative MPs well south of the red wall are up in arms, as the FT reports
Mr Johnson’s allies despair at the state of the test and trace system, which lost almost 16,000 cases this month because they exceeded the maximum file size that could be loaded into a central system. Infected people then unknowingly spread the disease. Dozens of MPs in Mr Johnson’s Conservative party are opposing new restrictions. They argue that existing rules to stop social mixing are not working and there is little evidence to support new lockdowns. Some argue that the vulnerable should be shielded, while the rest of the country should be allowed to get on with life. Graham Brady, who represents rank-and-file Tory MPs, said this week: “These rules are a massive intrusion into the liberty and private lives of the whole British people, and they’re having a devastating economic effect as well.”
But a wise voice expelled from the Tory party warns them to be careful what they wish for – David Gauke, former Remainer and Justice secretary writing in Conservative Home
.. if the virus takes hold, it will not matter whether pubs have to close at 10pm, 11pm or 12pm. People will not want to go to the pub or restaurant, cinema, shop or office. Most of the economic damage caused by a virus is driven by people voluntarily changing their behaviour.
Second, if Conservative MPs are worried about the economy and business-damaging policies that will damage the UK’s capacity to create wealth, some of them might want to have a think about what they have been doing for the past four or more years in terms of our relationship with the European Union. They might also consider that, when it comes to the long term health of the UK economy, ensuring that the UK has a sensible deal in place before the end of the transitional period would be a better focus for their energies.
Is there a more rational approach to coping with Covid than a sophisticated form of trial and error? Yes, according to the former cabinet secretary from later Blair to early Cameron Gus O’ Donnell ; it was ready and available all the time.
From excess deaths to precipitous falls in GDP and wellbeing, the UK has unequivocally failed compared to its peer countries. One glaring issue is that the government has no framework for dealing with trade-offs, so we lurch from one policy to the next depending on whether the chancellor or the health secretary has won the argument of the day.
Such a framework should be the cornerstone of government strategy. If implemented properly, it would allow for more effective decentralisation, which has been key to the success of countries like South Korea and Germany in this crisis. To this end, here are four recommendations for the government to turn around its lacklustre performance.
First, create a framework to assess the trade-offs of different policies. Policy should be calibrated so that the R-rate is minimised with the lowest social and economic cost. The government has prioritised limiting caseload and lives lost, but we have performed badly on both metrics. Policy outcomes show we have placed far greater value on individual lives saved than the NHS would under its well-established metric of “Quality-Adjusted Life Years”. It would be one thing if the government’s priorities were consistently applied, but they are not, partly because lockdowns are only tenable short-term.
To better deal with unavoidable trade-offs, a wellbeing approach could work, which would aggregate the costs and benefits of different policies based on how they affect individual wellbeing. It is a model that appears to be working well in countries like New Zealand. Research shows that happier people are more likely to conform with physical distancing and other rules. Taking a wellbeing approach should also bring a set of policies that people can live with, without severe drops in life satisfaction, until the pandemic has passed.
Second, government should give clear, honest statements to the public so they can judge the risks better for themselves. The “stay home, protect the NHS, save lives” campaign was a victim of its own success and brought very high conformity to the spring lockdown. In contrast, people don’t know what “stay alert” means in practice, so it has to be supplemented with myriad new top-down rules that lead to confusion and resentment.
Instead, a principles-based framework would explain succinctly what the highest risks are and give people greater discretion to apply them based on their individual risk profile and situation (eg young or old, healthy or not). For example, prolonged periods of time inside with people from multiple households is higher risk; shorter interactions outside are lower risk.
Enhancing understanding beyond soundbites becomes more crucial as the weather gets colder and the pandemic prolongs. Some life events cannot be delayed indefinitely so people need to understand what the risks of certain actions to themselves and others are.
Third, listen to a greater range of scientific viewpoints and create effective mechanisms to adjudicate between them. Scientific expertise is a British asset but it has been ineffectively harnessed. Politicians have said they are “following the science”. This phrase doesn’t mean much because good science is about disagreement and doubt. In fact, the government has followed medical rather than the broader human sciences. This is a mistake because this pandemic can only be contained through changing people’s behaviours.
Incorporating behavioural science would have avoided some crucial policy errors, for example ministers blaming young people and issuing a litany of confusing rules. Government should now prioritise getting the best behavioural scientists to work together with health experts to determine which behaviours need to change to control the pandemic and how best to change them. Government should also use the common framework to help it assess between a broad range of scientific viewpoints.
Finally, we should learn from other countries’ success with decentralised systems. South Korea and Germany have been well served by their decentralised models, in areas from test and trace to hospital management. Decentralisation doesn’t always work, but the UK should keep only the most advantageous aspects of centralisation, such as the NHS’s ability to generate and share health data quickly and effectively. The overriding message of this crisis is that centralised control is rarely that effective.
The tensions between Westminster and Holyrood mean that decentralisation has become a byword for political discord. But if the government were working strategically and with a common framework, decentralisation could enhance co-operation between different institutions and centres of power. It would also allow us to harness data from civil society, which has been essential in fostering wellbeing but on which the government lacks in-depth knowledge.
It is clear that the government needs a coherent strategy because it’s beholden to rhetoric over substance, overpromising with talk of moonshots rather than speaking frankly about the inevitable trade-offs we face in the coming months.
Who said civil servants were no good?
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London