One of the positive aspects of our response to the Covid-19 situation has been the way that both UK and Scottish Governments have worked together. They have, in the main, relied on the same scientific and medical advice, and essentially offered the same information to members of the public and businesses about how and when to change their behaviour. We saw this last Monday night, with the message coming from the Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, about the need for people to stay at home, and stay safe.
I know there are some individuals who find it irritating that Nicola Sturgeon appears on our television screens shortly after the Prime Minister, essentially repeating everything he has already said. Personally, I can see no harm in these vital messages being reinforced by as many voices as possible. It is also worth remembering that there will be sections of Scottish society who are simply not interested in listening to anything Boris Johnson says, as there equally groups here who take the same view of Nicola Sturgeon. If, between the two of them, these two political leaders can reach the great majority of the Scottish population, friends and foes alike, then the purpose is being served.
The public have a myriad of sources of information – broadcasters such as the BBC and Sky, local radio stations, print media, and of course social media and the internet. Some of these sources are verifiable and reliable; many are not so. But while we are relying on those such as the BBC – and this paper – who provide accurate information, there does need to be a consistent message coming from both Scotland’s governments about how we respond to Covid-19.
In the main, the information has been clear. But there have been examples of a divergence between the UK and Scottish approaches, and I am not convinced that these have always been helpful to the public. Two weeks ago, when school closures were announced, the UK Government produced a list of key workers whose children would still be accommodated in an educational setting. The Scottish Government chose not to publish their own list instead allowing 32 local authorities to set their own criteria. Whilst this was a decision no doubt made with the best of intentions, it undoubtedly caused confusion in the minds of the public as to whether they were designated as key workers or not.
Builders left scratching their heads
We saw the same thing happen in relation to workers in the construction sector, an issue highlighted yesterday by the Scotland Office Minister Douglas Ross MP. The UK Secretary for Housing and Communities announced last week that construction sites could stay open so long as workers exercised social distancing.
But the Scottish Government were clear that all construction sites should close. Not surprisingly, construction firms in Scotland, and their employees, were left scratching their heads, wondering whose advice they should follow.
It is not just in relation to the public information being given that we see a difference in approach between Scotland and the UK. Individuals in vulnerable groups south of the Border were written to last week, giving them details of priority schemes for home delivery of food and other essential items, when this did not happen in Scotland. And the NHS Volunteer Scheme was established in England and Wales last week with a similar system in Scotland only just being set up on Monday.
There is a variation, too, in support for business. I’ve had a large number of constituents contact me who run self-catering holiday lets, concerned that the scheme that has been announced in England is more generous than that applying here, where assistance is restricted to those for whom self-catering is their primary source of income. This means that, for example, a farming business which runs self-catering cottages which might represent a significant source of income, but which nevertheless is not the primary source of earnings, misses out on support that an equivalent business in Northumberland or North Wales would benefit from.
We are in an era of devolution, when policy divergence between Scotland and the rest of the UK has become commonplace. Different levels of support to businesses, which might already pay different levels of taxation depending which part of the UK they are located in, are not in themselves a major issue.
What we are dealing with today is a national crisis with millions of people stuck in their homes and desperate for some information. In an environment like this, mixed messages about what and how to behave are at best unhelpful.
I hope that in coming weeks we will continue to see the UK and Scottish governments work closely together, and that this working relationship will be reflected in the communications they both issue to the public to ensure a consistent front.
Murdo Fraser is a Conservative MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife