Westminster fears ‘four nations’ approach is splintering amid Scotland-England differences
Boris Johnson’s government has been working closely with the devolved administrations on how to stop the spread of Covid-19, and the four nations of the United Kingdom have maintained almost identical lockdown rules throughout, despite health being a devolved policy area.
UK government insiders praise Nicola Sturgeon and the other leaders for putting politics aside at Cobra meetings and working constructively across party lines. But they have accused the First Minister of spreading mixed messages in public, and of trying to promote a Nationalist agenda – while senior Conservatives claim the response to the crisis shows “the benefits of the Union”.
The entire UK entered lockdown at the same time, but Ms Sturgeon and the first ministers of Wales and Northern Ireland have reserved the right to alter the current rules at different times to England if they choose.
Yesterday the Scottish leader hit out at claims that figures in Westminster were planning for schools to return in June, saying: “The Scottish Government – in discussion with local authorities – will decide a safe timetable for re-opening schools.”
Ms Sturgeon also recommended the wearing of face coverings in public a week before Mr Johnson followed suit, while the Scottish Government has told construction sites to close even as builders in England are advised to continue working as long as they can stay two metres apart.
On other occasions, the First Minister has used her lunchtime press conference to provide lockdown updates which were due to be announced by Downing Street.
Ms Sturgeon argues that because health policy is devolved, she has a duty to provide the Scottish public with the most up-to-date information possible.
A No 10 source said: “On the substance we’ve been very aligned. But there’s been some difference on messaging – things like Nicola Sturgeon making the announcement on schools a few hours early show that there is politics.
“She’s a Nationalist who wants to break up the United Kingdom, and it would be naive to say they’re not considering that lens when they act.”
A Whitehall source said: “In terms of the big picture, the Scottish and UK governments have remained very aligned on all the big issues.”
But they warned that if the messaging diverges on different sides of the Border, the public risks being confused.
Defending her approach, the First Minister said on Friday: “My job is to make the judgements I think are right for Scotland, and part of that judgement, given the nature of a virus, is to try to align our actions as much as we can with the other governments across these islands.”
In recent days both Ms Sturgeon and Jason Leitch, Scotland’s national clinical director, have criticised the Prime Minister for announcing that the UK is past the peak of the Covid-19 outbreak.
Meanwhile, Scottish Liberal Democrat education spokeswoman Beatrice Wishart has called for a New Zealand-style multi-level approach to be adopted on schools reopening. This has seen a four-tiered strategy implemented by the authorities, from outright closure to Level 1 which allows schools to safely open with contact tracing measures in place.
Ms Wishart now says Scotland should follow suit in a latter to Education Secretary John Swinney.
“I believe that it is possible to replicate such a framework and set out the path to the new normal in Scottish education, and beyond,” Ms Wishart said.
“Even this limited foresight would enable parents and teachers to consider how they might arrange their lives and work during each alert level.
“Businesses and employers who are already struggling against wave after wave of disruption would benefit too.
“Projecting the availability of their workforce would enhance the plans many are already drawing up for recovery and reopening.”
Robert Halfon MP, chairman of the House of Commons education select committee, said his preference is for early years education and primary schools to open first.
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