Devo-max: mapping the divergence of the UK nations’ responses to COVID-19

by Gaelan Komen & Evi Gkaintatzi

Devo-max: mapping the divergence of the UK nations’ responses to COVID-19 

On the same day the devolved nations of the United Kingdom left the EU en masse – some less willingly than others – the first case of the novel COVID-19 struck the UK, presenting fresh scope and stresses for the union. The advent of COVID-19 sparked a public health scramble in each UK nation, which diverged and intertwined with one another on the basis of deeper lying political prognoses between the nations.  

Although health policy is typically left as a devolved matter, wherein each UK nation sets its own policy on healthcare organisation and delivery, in the early phase of the outbreak the devolved governments co-ordinated their response through the publication of a UK-wide public health action plan – the Coronavirus Act. As provided by the Act, England, Scotland and Wales introduced an official lockdown on March 26, with a lockdown swiftly following in Northern Ireland on March 28, presenting only minor variations in their approaches. 

The long period between initial infection and full lockdown put paid to the stringency of the measures implemented in late-March – the virus was already widespread across all four UK nations, and the UK as a whole experienced one of the worst national prognoses in Europe. Notable variations were seen across the UK, however –the progression of the virus was less aggressive in Wales, for example, where relatively few people suffered the more severe and terminal effects of the disease. 

Although the current rate of infection across the nations appear similar – the highest per 100,00 is in Wales, then England, followed by Northern Ireland and Scotland – the protective public health measures instigated in response, and the degrees to which the nations ‘unlocked’ as the severity of the pandemic waned, has varied. The Scottish government’s focus on informing and educating the public in the initial stages of the outbreak and through the lockdown paid dividends – Scotland managed to keep infections and deaths from the infection relatively low and steady throughout the pandemic as the public adhered to social distancing guidance while ‘pandemic fatigue’ set in elsewhere in the UK. 

Even as the UK government opted to extensively ease restrictions in England through June to spur economic recovery as the prevalence of the pandemic improved, Scotland, along with Wales, less liberally eased lockdown restrictions despite their relatively low infection and mortality rates. In lockdown easing, significant divergence was seen across the four-nation lockdown exit strategy, where rules differed in terms of the timing and type of restrictions eased. 

As the threat of a second wave becomes increasingly imminent, the UK-wide collaboration seen at the start of the pandemic – from UK-wide lockdowns to common travel bans – may have to be reprioritised to combat the virus. Wales and England found common ground with Wales inputting contact tracing data into the English National Health Service (NHS) Test and Trace programme, and such collaborative successes could be built on. 

Work to this effect seems to have begun with the new National Institute for Health Protection which was set up following the recent closure of Public Health England and whose responsibilities include contact tracing. The pandemic has given UK policymakers an opportunity to explore areas of common consideration, such as the optimisation of data reporting from public and private operators of the UK COVID-19 effort including testing, which could underpin efforts to adopt new one-nation health policy. 

Although healthcare policy is devolved, certain UK-wide issues, such as Brexit and COVID-19, can necessitate collaboration on the UK level. Joint UK ministerial committees have facilitated cross-union collaboration and debate on issues such as EU negotiations and agricultural policy; early successes seen through regular informal meetings of devolved leaders and health ministers could successfully crystallise in such a committee to lay the groundwork for more concrete collaboration against COVID-19.  

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