A very Celtic virus
Updated: Jun 19
There’s no disputing the macabre truth: Britain’s response to the pandemic has been woeful. The novel coronavirus is leaving behind a cruel wake of tens of thousands of the dead. 42,000 lives have already been lost to the virus alone. Much of this was likely preventable.
In the popular press, the government in Westminster has shouldered much of the blame. But the familiar narrative makes a glaring omission: its mistakes mostly only ever affected England. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, public health is the responsibility of the devolved administrations.
While Northern Ireland has responded competently, the same cannot be said for Scotland and Wales.
Since the start of the pandemic, the devolved administrations have been suckers for playing regional politics - from rushing to announce school closures before England to criticising its confusing slogans.
They have made the wrong choices too. Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish First Minister, did not tell Scots about an outbreak in an Edinburgh hotel in late February, days ahead of Scotland’s first publicly-announced case. This was despite the threat that the outbreak presented to public health from visitors that were not contact-traced. While Boris Johnson has been criticised for not attending early meetings of his government’s crisis committees – meetings which Sturgeon also missed – a Freedom of Information request recently revealed that she bizarrely received no written briefings about the virus before 9 March.
Much more tragically, in the pandemic’s preparatory stages, Scottish ministers transferred over 900 elderly hospital patients to care homes, most of them untested. Sixty percent of Scottish care homes have since reported cases of COVID-19. The country’s proportion of viral deaths from care homes is twice that of England; more deaths have been reported in Scottish care homes than in its hospitals.
An analysis now suggests that Scotland has the third-worst COVID-19 death rate globally after Belgium and England.
The situation is not much better in Wales, which since the start of the virus has suffered some of Britain’s largest outbreaks.
Last month, Vaughan Gething, the Welsh Health Minister, was photographed enjoying chips outdoors against his own guidelines. Within three days of the story breaking in the press, the Welsh Government changed its regulations to allow picnics.
Then there’s the issue of testing, where Welsh policy failures have been more pronounced. Most of the countries that have successfully contained the virus, such as Germany and South Korea, avoided the worst excesses of a lockdown via a strong contact-tracing regime complemented by social distancing rules. To do this, they aggressively ramped up testing in the early months of the virus.
This is the policy towards which Britain is working only now, four months too late. England was forced to abandon contact-tracing in mid-March because it did not have the capacity for mass testing, owing to the decisions of Public Health England, a public sector agency. PHE refused private and independent sector offers to expand testing, then refused to deliver community testing until the Office for National Statistics took over.
Wales was even slower to join the testing game. At one point, Wales was completing one-hundredth of England’s tests despite having one-eighteenth of its population. In late April, the Welsh Government scrapped an unambitious testing target for 5,000 daily tests after failing to meet it and then refused to set further targets altogether. (A leaked report found that it required up to 17,000 daily tests for effective contact-tracing.) The Chief Executive of Public Health Wales also testified that she was ‘not familiar’ with the government’s initial target. For much of the pandemic, the government directed test samples from North Wales on a daylong trip to Cardiff because it refused to send them to an English mega-lab an hour away in Cheshire.
Echoing Scotland, the Welsh Government sent elderly patients back to their care homes without testing them because there were not enough tests to go around. It only expanded testing to all care home residents and staff on 16 May, three weeks after England.
With all this in mind, where there has been an endless outcry against the failures of the British government – much of it deserved – there has been much less scrutiny of the shortcomings of the devolved administrations.
There is both an epidemiological and political explanation to this. In the former, cases have translated into significantly more deaths in England than in the other nations. Had they maintained England’s case fatality ratio, Britain would have accumulated over 4,000 more deaths. It would be interesting to investigate why the virus has been more fatal in England, and how much of it, if any, can be explained by better policy in the devolved administrations or inversely worse policy in England.
But the disparate scrutiny is also symptomatic of Britain’s uneasy constitutional settlement. UK Government ministers announce cases and deaths in all four of the UK’s nations – even though their public health measures mostly apply only to England. That cases are not disaggregated in the daily briefings has allowed the shortcomings of the devolved administrations to go unscrutinised. It is a sad consequence of the still-unanswered West Lothian question and Britain’s unfinished federalism.
If anything, the devolved administrations are being rewarded for their responses to the pandemic. Voting intention for the Senedd has swung towards Welsh Labour, while four-fifths of Scots say that Sturgeon has handled the crisis well. Sturgeon has eyed the pandemic as an opportunity to showcase her good governorship and restate the case for independence, appetite for which has increased both in Scotland and Wales.
There is perhaps an irony in that. Either way, even short of independence, it would be an oversight of devolution and democracy if the leaders of the devolved administrations are never held to account for their responses to the pandemic. England is not Britain – and England is also a bad yardstick against which to judge any nation's response to the virus.
Matteo Baccaglini is President of the Oxford Hayek Society.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily of the Oxford Hayek Society.