Comparing government performances during the Covid-19 pandemic — across the UK and beyond — is tricky. It should not be rushed. Politicians are working under conditions of profound uncertainty. So far, the UK seems to be doing well with rolling out the vaccine.
Even so, the coronavirus has clearly hit the UK particularly hard. Boris Johnson, as the whole state’s prime minister, has a particular responsibility for this grim reality.
Covid-19 vaccination holds out hope of returning to normality. But we should also take a hard look at UK territorial governance in the round — the relationships among all the governments, territories and states that make up these islands.
Though the vaccine seems to protect individuals from the worst effects of the virus, it is not yet clear how far vaccination slows transmission. Unless the virus is heavily suppressed — and not just in the UK — it will mutate. New variants may require new versions of the vaccine.
Before Covid-19, Sars, Mers and Ebola were major viral threats to human health. More will follow. Is the UK territorial state fit for what could be next – Covid-19 mutations or some new virus?
Emergency-mode pandemic co-operation between London and the devolved governments has been close and effective at times. It has also been hampered by narrow political point-scoring.
Some politicians and commentators have indulged in doleful league-table comparisons, rather than looking to learn lessons about what works best.
Despite devolution, the UK government system retains a hyper-centralist quality. Decision-making is concentrated in a small group around the prime minister who shape the context for everyone else – including devolved governments.
As islands, Great Britain and Ireland have a natural advantage — which New Zealand seems to have used well. Australia also used its internal borders effectively.
The juxtaposition of Johnson’s enthusiasm for an “Australian-style” points-based immigration system and his late conversion to external border pandemic-management (and ambivalence about internal borders) is bleakly ironic.
While Covid-19 casts light on Johnson’s decision-making style, the UK’s problems are a matter of government structures as much as his recent choices.
As well as creating new troubles, Covid-19 has unearthed prior problems of territorial governance. Ten years of austerity have been especially challenging, particularly for authorities in England.
It came after decades of centralisation — powers stripped away from local government. Even so, local authorities have stepped up throughout the Covid-19 emergency.
Austerity will prove tricky to reverse. Decades of piecemeal reform have created a patchwork territorial state. Variegated bilateral “deals” have stitched in new city mayors in parts of England. Covid-19 has torn the threadbare fabric of the state and pulled at its seams.
Instinctively, the Johnson administration turned to the private sector — management consultants and outsourcing companies. They all sought to throw together bespoke provision at the height of the emergency.
It turned to the military, in extremis, to deliver critical logistical support for testing and vaccination. The army has proved more effective than some private companies, but the government’s reluctance to work with and through local authorities is striking.
Local government faces challenges in Scotland and Wales too. Devolution has provided some protection from the extremes of English-style austerity. Locally and nationally, devolved governments have been less keen on outsourcing.
Both Scotland and Wales have sought to emphasize early interventions and preventative policies. Overall, however, devolved politics has focused on national-constitutional issues. Perhaps practical policy innovation, with Scottish and Welsh local authorities as key partners, has been somewhat squeezed out.
Overall, the UK is territorially fragile and disoriented. Exhausted by Covid-19 and facing new challenges after Brexit, the moment is hardly propitious for major local government reform or transforming relationships across the nations.
But any major viral threat requires robust systems of territorial governance, and strong relationships among governments within and across countries. The cliché that a virus is no respecter of borders bears repeating as we think about Covid-19 across the UK — and also in Ireland.
Scottish independence and Irish unification pose immediate challenges to the UK state. Scotland’s May elections could ramp up the pressure. Parallel elections for Wales and England’s metro-mayors and local authorities could condense myriad contradictions into a single political moment.
There is, though, little sign of the creative thinking needed to reform the threadbare patchwork of UK territorial governance.