UK’s devolved nations take more cautious approach to lifting Covid curbs

When UK prime minister Boris Johnson announced plans last week to scrap almost all coronavirus restrictions on July 19, he neglected one crucial detail: he was talking only for England.

Anxious about soaring coronavirus cases as the highly transmissible Delta variant spreads across the country, the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are all taking markedly more cautious approaches to the end of mandatory physical distancing rules and the use of face coverings than Johnson intends for England.

It is a divergence that highlights the contrasting priorities of the UK and devolved governments, which have broad powers over health policy, since their initial united front against Covid-19 fractured in May last year.

“This is a moment for care and caution,” Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, said on Thursday. Michelle O’Neill, Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, was less diplomatic about Johnson’s route map. “I think it is a reckless approach,” she said earlier in the week.

Many scientists broadly welcomed the devolved governments’ more cautious approach, particularly in light of the recent sharp rise in coronavirus cases.

“Once you in effect say that infections don’t matter, then it’s very difficult to say to people: ‘be careful and don’t get infected’,” said Stephen Reicher, professor of social psychology at St Andrews university and a member of the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, commenting on the approach in England. “There’s a very dangerous messaging issue.”

In Scotland, where the number of cases have hit record highs in recent weeks, Sturgeon still hopes to announce on Tuesday that the whole nation will move to the lowest level of coronavirus restrictions on July 19.

But this will still require physical distancing indoors, and Sturgeon warned on Thursday that rules requiring the use of face coverings in public places were likely to remain in place even after a further easing planned for August 9.

The Welsh government on Sunday said it would continue to enforce mask wearing on public transport and in taxis and would consider doing so in shops.

“Scientific evidence supports the use of face coverings, alongside other measures, as a way of reducing the transmission of the virus,” it said.

Cardiff will announce on Wednesday which restrictions it will scrap over the summer, in what is likely to be the last such major change before September.

The Labour administration is likely to maintain social distancing and table service in pubs. “I don’t think we will be allowing people to queue six deep at the bar,” said one Welsh official.

A woman serves cocktails in a bar in Cardiff
A woman serves cocktails in a bar in Cardiff. The Labour administration is likely to maintain social distancing and table service in pubs © Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

The devolved Northern Ireland executive on Thursday announced it planned to only slightly relax its coronavirus restrictions from July 26 and would not consider further easing until mid-August. Face masks and social distancing will continue to be required in most settings and indoor gatherings limited to 15 people from no more than three households.

The UK government and some scientists believe that vaccination has sufficiently weakened the link between infection with Covid-19 and serious illness and death to make it possible to end restrictions that themselves cause health problems, both physical and mental, and social and economic hardship.

While some experts say Sturgeon’s more cautious approach to easing restrictions has been a major factor in Scotland’s somewhat lower overall death rate compared with England, many in the hard-hit travel and hospitality sectors are increasingly angry at her Scottish National party government.

Chart showing that the number of Covid patients in hospital is also climbing again

“The SNP has abandoned Scottish tourist retail,” complains a poster in the doorway of one closed souvenir shop on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile this month.

The opposition Scottish Conservative party on Thursday criticised Sturgeon for suggesting that some easing of measures could be delayed if case numbers rose. “Her language, which hinted some restrictions might not be lifted, is completely unhelpful,” said Douglas Ross, Scottish Tory leader.

Northern Ireland’s economy minister Gordon Lyons told the Financial Times the region’s government was conscious that continued restrictions needed to be weighed against the harm they did. “None of these things can be taken in isolation,” he said. “If the economy is not back to where it needs to be, that affects the health of people, that affects people’s wellbeing. What we need to do is make sure that when we do open it is sustainable.” 

But devolved government leaders worry that if there is a huge wave of new cases, patients could overwhelm the NHS and cause unacceptable numbers of deaths. Sturgeon is also among leaders who have warned about the effects of “long Covid”.

It is also unclear whether continuing restrictions in Scotland and Wales will be effective, given the likelihood that any surge in cases in England will spill over their borders.

Both Wales and Scotland introduced bans on non-essential travel to and from England earlier in the pandemic, but any substantial return to such controls would face fierce opposition from the tourism sector in particular. Welsh officials said they did not anticipate imposing renewed restrictions.

A sign in shop window on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile attacking the SNP’s approach to dealing with the pandemic
A sign in a shop window on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile attacking the SNP’s handling of the pandemic © Iain Masterton/Alamy

Another potential problem for the devolved governments is that attention on what has been dubbed England’s “freedom day” will drown out their own health messaging and undermine public willingness to follow stricter rules.

Devolved government leaders have called on Johnson to be clear when he is announcing England-only policies, but in his July 5 statement the prime minister made no direct mention of devolution or of any of the UK’s separate constituent nations.

“We are conscious that other jurisdictions are making changes to their own regulations,” the Northern Ireland executive said pointedly in its Thursday statement. “It is important to make clear that the decisions taken by the executive today . . . are those which apply here.”

And Sturgeon admitted that “the sheer domination of the coverage from England into Scotland . . . can confuse the messaging here”.

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