A week ago, 27 million viewers watched as Boris Johnson signalled the first steps out of the Covid-19 lockdown. The aim of providing a route out of lockdown was a reasonable one. But the strategy and execution were badly mishandled and confused. The botched broadcast fractured a valuable existing consensus. At a stroke, a unified UK-wide approach was cast aside. A week ago, Mr Johnson became in effect the leader not of the United Kingdom but of England alone.
Mr Johnson’s announcements were not followed by the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish administrations. Instead they chose to stick to the lockdown. This division among the partner nations was avoidable. It is also unhelpful to their citizens as a whole. The error was Mr Johnson’s. He needs to focus urgently on restoring a common approach across the four nations that avoids what the Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, has called a London-centric approach. There are, of course, underlying political tensions in the four-nation relationship, and within each nation too, but they had not disrupted the fight against the virus until last week.
The Welsh government’s handling points to a better way forward. On Friday, the first minister, Mark Drakeford, did what Mr Johnson should have done. He made his own statement at the same time as launching a detailed and realistic document on unlocking, with an easily understood “traffic light” approach to eventual easing in different contexts. Where Mr Johnson was bullish, blustering and baffling, Mr Drakeford was careful, calibrated and clear. Unlike Mr Johnson, with his anachronistic idea of gung-ho leadership, Mr Drakeford made clear that he is trying to lead a continuing and reasoned conversation. This is a much more modern and devolution-aware approach, which Keir Starmer correctly underscored at the weekend, as well as far better suited to the complexities and risks of the pandemic. Similar approaches have been taken in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The four-nations approach to the emergency is a valuable asset for the UK. It has the virtues of clarity and coordination. Above all, it was and is the right public health approach. Health policy has long been a devolved responsibility in the UK. It was devolved even before political devolution in the late 1990s. But the virus – like science – knows no borders, either of nations or of what used to be called health authorities. Faced with an enemy like Covid-19, it is irresponsible, as well as dangerously ineffective, for different parts of a nation state like Britain to adopt sweepingly different approaches. For that reason alone, joint decision-making remains essential.
There will be an increasing case, when the pandemic fades, for different approaches in different communities on a local level. There are signs of that already. But the key point is that these differences should be determined by science and by local public health needs, not by the UK’s internal borders. Despite last week’s unilateral English lurch by Mr Johnson, many of the differences of approach remain reconcilable. It is therefore time to compromise for the common good. Last week, Mr Johnson’s previously enviable ratings slumped. He doesn’t do contrition, but the more sensitive tone he adopted in a weekend press article shows that he knows there is a problem.
There are many reasons why a collective approach should be re-established for the remainder of the pandemic. The protection of public health is overwhelmingly the main one. But politics is important too. Each part of the UK is governed by a different party. Partisan issues will never be entirely separable from a shared process of this kind. But they must not dominate it. If you need a warning about what the partisan politicisation of Covid-19 can do, look no further than the unfolding catastrophe in the United States and to what Barack Obama said at the weekend. The life and death issues involved in the fight against the pandemic are much too important for the UK to go down that disastrous road.