The United Kingdom went into the Covid-19 crisis as one nation. It seems likely to exit from the pandemic as several. At the outset, the UK’s different governments took similar approaches. Lockdown rules were observed by citizens in all parts of the country, with some infamous individual exceptions like Dominic Cummings. As the onslaught starts to slacken, however, differential approaches are likely to become more important. These differences have now been embodied in the radically contrasted announcements made in London and in Edinburgh this week about the next stage.
In England, the government has always been keener to lift the lockdown early. The case for this has never been easy to accept. The virus has not been a lighter scourge in England. The driving force has been a volatile mix of ideology and window dressing. Boris Johnson and his ministers have announced arbitrary goals – often under short-term pressure – and have then battled, generally unsuccessfully and at human cost, to meet them. The approach has never been comprehensive, well explained or effective. Among the most shocking examples have been shortages of personal protective equipment, testing failures for nursing homes and the refusal to test at ports and airports.
This week’s virus tracing measures in England are the latest example of this shambolic approach. Mr Johnson said on 20 May that a “world beating” system to test and trace for coronavirus would be in place by 1 June. Easing the lockdown is umbilically linked to the need for such a system. Without it the dangers of a second wave of cases are very real. Yet it is now clear that the tracing system in England will be much more muddled, modest and incomplete than Mr Johnson claimed. A much trumpeted app does not yet exist. It will not be ready before late June. A slower, less efficient and more labour-intensive tracing system is now starting to come into operation, but there are numerous teething problems.
Nevertheless the UK government is pushing ahead. Mr Johnson set the ball rolling in his botched broadcast on 10 May; now, right on cue, he has managed to get scientific cover for the move from Sage, though other scientists have different views. He has also brought forward other measures from July to mid-June and been followed by the ever greedy Premier League. This is chaos waiting to happen. Mr Johnson’s eagerness is driven not just by his generally slapdash approach but also by his desperation to drown out the Cummings scandal. It seems all too likely that he will fail on both fronts, combining a mismanaged easing, which risks causing a spike in Covid-19 cases, with a stupid and damaging attempt to keep Mr Cummings in post.
Meanwhile in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon’s government has proceeded in an altogether more cautious, logical and planned manner. Mark Drakeford in Wales and Arlene Foster in Northern Ireland have done the same, but Scotland’s first minister has now committed to some easing from the end of this week. Many of these measures have been permitted in England for nearly three weeks, but Ms Sturgeon’s message remains a more careful one and she has done nothing to encourage reckless headlines of the kind that Mr Johnson ignited so stupidly earlier in May. Travelling more than six miles in Scotland to take exercise will remain discouraged, for example. In England, one can travel 260 miles or more.
Scotland’s approach is far closer to public opinion in all parts of the UK, England included. One of the great lessons of the pandemic has been that governments that trust their publics, level with them, and prepare and explain their next moves properly, are the ones that enjoy public confidence for their handling. Ms Sturgeon, Mr Drakeford and Ms Foster continue to do that. Mr Johnson, as this week has underscored, sometimes seems to barely care. The people of England deserve so much better.