Covid-19 and the Future of the United Kingdom

By the end of March 2020, all four UK nations had taken the decision to lockdown. Though the timing of lockdown has since been criticised, the coherency and consistency with which the initial restrictions were implemented across the country brought about a sense of unity. Between the 20th and the 28th of March Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland announced the closure of all non-essential services and put measures in place to restrict people from leaving their homes for non-essential travel. With the number of Covid-19 related deaths on mainland Europe increasing exponentially, the restrictions were generally accepted as a necessary step to protect the vunerable and preserve the NHS.

However, as the leaders of the four nations considered a relaxation of restrictions, the coherence and unity once experienced quickly disintegrated. In May, Johnson’s adoption of the widely ridiculed “Stay Alert” slogan was unsurprisingly shunned by Northern Ireland, Wales, and Scotland. With each devolved nation publishing their own more cautious, less regimented strategies, Johnson’s ‘four nation’ approach was swiftly rejected. This divergence in tactic has only continued to grow, resulting in rising tensions and frustrations between Westminster and the devolved governments.

These tensions have been clear from early on in the cases of Wales and Scotland. For instance, when Wales’ first minister Mark Drakeford was asked why he wasn’t following England’s example when lifting lockdown measures, he simply responded by asking why England aren’t following the steps being taken by other parts of the UK. Similarly, Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, expressed confusion when Johnson used year group terms that don’t apply to Scotland when discussing the reopening of schools. Sturgeon and Drakeford have accused Johnson of dismissing the views of the devolved governments, and in June both decided to boycott a ministerial video conference after a Brexit extension was dismissed without discussion.

Northern Ireland’s first minister Arlene Foster also began to distance herself from Johnson when she subtly but notably claimed there would be differences in her approach to lifting lockdown restrictions. Though slight, this straying from Johnson’s guidance has symbolic significance, as the pandemic has offered republicans an opportunity to argue that an all-Ireland approach would be more beneficial. The way in which Westminster deals with devolution was attacked by Matthew O’Toole, the SDLP member of the legislative assembly for Belfast South, claiming “No. 10 as a machine hasn’t been set up to think about dealing with devolution, in the way it probably should.” The pre-existing strained and asymmetric relationships between governments in the UK have been aggravated by the pandemic, and currently show no signs of healing.

More recently, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have been utilising their devolved powers to implement localised restrictions and lockdowns. Although the local lockdowns appear similar, subtle differences have acted as a catalyst for further tension. For example, though England and Wales’ local restrictions have many similarities, in Wales people living in areas with high infection rates are restricted to their county. Contrastingly, in England, people in areas with high-infection rates aren’t necessarily restricted to travel. Subsequently, Drakeford has accused Johnson of “disrespecting the people of Wales” after he ignored a letter requesting the prevention of people from areas of England with high-infection rates travelling to Wales. Johnson has been accused by the opposition of further splintering the union through a lack of coordination.

Interestingly, the frustration of the leaders of the devolved nations has generally been mirrored by the public. For instance, a trend has emerged in opinion polls suggesting there is a majority support for Scottish independence. More surprisingly, a recent YouGov poll shows the highest ever support for Welsh independence, with 32% of voters claiming they would vote ‘Yes’ in an independence referendum for Wales. Though Northern Ireland has expressed its desire to remain a part of the UK, there is immense anger from both sides regarding Johnson’s Brexit plan. Whilst the idea that the pandemic alone could bring about the death of the union seems ridiculous, when considering the political landscape which lies beneath the pandemic and the stark differences between the devolved governments, the future of the union appears far more uncertain.