Contrasting responses to a common virus

Published: 4 May 2020
Author: Richard Parry

Richard Parry discusses the varied responses to the pandemic between the devolved nations in the UK and beyond, and what this tells us about the relationship between the political system and expert advice.

A commonplace of public policy analysis is the concept of anthropomorphism - the idea that policies tend to converge overtime on a consensual idea of best practice across systems. Devolution within the UK provides an additional perspective on this process in a public health emergency.

In mid-March, the UK government attempted to craft a lockdown that resisted longer than most, school closures, the end of spectator sports, the testing of asymptomatics, and the use of face masks.

The devolution of public health and its attendant medical and scientific advice provided the UK with the possibility of a peer-group check on the Downing Street line.

In practice, divergence has been limited, and UK networks strong. Scottish policies on the banning of mass gatherings (13 March), on the written analysis of the criteria for relaxing restrictions (23 April) and on the use of face masks (28 April) have taken the form of licensed anticipations of UK positions. These positions have even post-Brexit, shown a growing convergence with an international consensus.

Ireland offers an example of somewhat different practice in a similar but independent jurisdiction. Here, school closures, widespread testing, and the precise specification of permissible distance outside the home for exercise (2 km) were closer to European norms. By the end of April, there was clear pushback by many ministers against cautious official advice on relaxations. This led to plans on 1 May that attempt to anticipate a phased relaxation through to August.

The issue is about whether 'the science' is a single objective entity to be presented by occupants of government advisory positions rather than contestable sets of hypotheses, data, and conclusions. The UK approach is making the government the guarantor of safe public health practices, including health and safety at work. Manufacturing and construction work in factories and outdoor sites deemed ‘non-essential’ were quickly closed down (in Scotland more vigorously) and this will be slow to reverse.

Containment is now not just about controlling the virus, but about the acceptable level of containment of the economy and society by public health priorities. There will be unprecedentedly bad numbers on national output, public sector deficits, and government debt. Temporary income support to firms and individuals has been premised upon a limited interruption of the normal; they are expensive and maybe only a prelude to mass redundancies and bankruptcies. The worst victims of the 2008 financial crisis, especially Greece, give us some experience of dealing with this and shows how varied the distributional outcomes are likely to be.

Covid-19 has targeted itself on modern industries based upon propinquity. Hospitality, culture, sport, aviation, and higher education shut down fast. They are vulnerable to continuing consumer caution, and their business models tend to assume a maximum utilisation of space that is incompatible with current distancing requirements.

Throughout the world, governments are now feeling a political impulsion to relax restrictions. The UK is resisting this pressure longer than most, and it has the advantage of observing possibilities from other countries (such as France, where the maximum school class size is 15, and Spain, where a 30% occupancy limit has been imposed at indoor spaces).

At the best of times, the reconciliation of politics and expert advice is difficult. Communications strategies to put governments in the best light continue in the UK and beyond, but there are signs of an openness to the comparative policy learning that the circumstances now demand.

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