On Tuesday afternoon as I drove across much of the Midlands of England, from Leicester to Birmingham then on to Manchester, I tuned into live coverage of the worsening coronavirus crisis now sweeping across Britain and Ireland — and much of Europe too — in what many fear is that dreaded second wave.
For much of the past two months, Leicester had been under strict localised lockdowns, so too Birmingham now, and so too Manchester. Liverpool has restricted gatherings and, all told, some 14 million are living under some of new restrictions on their movements up and down England.
On Tuesday night, Prime Minister Boris Johnson made an address to the nation — the timing was critical given the rising rates of infection — explaining why his government is reversing its previous advice, telling people now to work from home, cover up with masks when in public indoor spaces, and ordering restrictions on bars and restaurants. And unless the advice of his government is taken seriously, the measures will be in place for the next six months — and the government is strongly hinting that a second national lockdown might likely have to be reimposed. Ironically, his address to the nation came six months after the UK first entered lockdown for that initial two-week period.
In Scotland, there are stricter rules on gatherings and travel. So too in Wales. And so too in Northern Ireland. Each of the separate nations that together make up the United Kingdom are going their own ways. Health, you see, is one of the areas of administration devolved to the regional parliaments from Westminster. While Johnson is the UK Prime Minister, when it comes to health, Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland, Arlene Foster in Northern Ireland and Mark Drakeford in Wales each have as much power as Johnson who speaks for England.
Devolved powers of the regions
In truth, this coronavirus crisis has underscored the devolved powers of the regions as never before — and never before has it been so relevant. In England, Johnson has many critics within his own Conservative party and up and down the shires and cities — with many left scratching their heads over more than a dozen U-turns on health policy and coronavirus regulations, school exam results and just how and when rules and laws governing the pandemic are to be handled.
While the police constabularies up and down those shires and cities have the power to fine people for ignoring the rules, too many are simply saying that if Johnson’s own personal adviser Dominic Cummings can ignore them, how can they be realistically enforced.
It’s a different matter in Scotland, where Sturgeon has been resolute in making stricter rules for Scots, having few cases per capita, and offering a clear and decisive message.
Last week, in a stinging rebuke of Johnson, she said she can’t remember when they last spoke and urged him to meet all three regional leaders in a COBRA session — named after the Cabinet Office Briefing Room where those crisis management meetings are held. That hasn’t happened yet.
All-Ireland strategy for fighting the pandemic
Drakeford went further, saying that there’s a leadership vacuum at the centre of power in the UK. And in Northern Ireland, Forster’s power-sharing administration has looked south of the border to Dublin to coordinate an all-Ireland strategy for fighting the pandemic.
In essence, coronavirus has done more to raise awareness of the different strategies and powers of the regional governments than any other recent current event.
In Greater Manchester where the mayor has been directly elected, Andy Burnham has been swift to make sure specific areas of the city have localised restrictions in place to keep residents safe. It’s a similar story in Liverpool, where Mayor Joe Anderson called Johnson’s bluff when it came to getting schoolchildren back to the classrooms last June. The lesson seems to be that where local and regional politicians show effective leadership and take strict action to protect local communities, they have the backing of residents from their areas.
Missing in action
Maybe there’s an element of truth then to Drakeford’s assertion that Johnson has been missing in action. It’s ironic too that this increase in support for devolved powers comes at a time when nine months ago, Johnson named himself as the Minister for the Union in an attempt to show that he was determined to hold together the fraying strands of his United Kingdom. But coronavirus has undermined the portfolio of his choosing.
When Johnson addressed his nation on Tuesday night, he made an appeal for the minority to uphold law and order, follow the rules and help stop the spread of coronavirus. Oh the irony. Barely a week before, this man, his ministers, his cabinet, framed a law that would itself ignore the rule of law for overwriting the Withdrawal Agreement from the European Union. How can he ask Englishmen and women to uphold the law now when his own government chooses to ignore it and do as it pleases? And so did Cummings, I hasten to add, when it suited him to visit his parents on a 900-kilometre round trip from London
The messages from Johnson are far too mixed now: Go to work. Stay at home. Eat out. Avoid eating out. A great Brexit deal. A terrible deal. Follow the law. Break the law. Do as I say not do as my advisers do.
With so much focus now in the UK on coronavirus — and how each region has its own rules — the whole issue of a trade deal with Brussels is being ignored. Deliberately? I cannot answer that question. But I would take on board the words of German’s Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth who, on Tuesday afternoon warned that Johnson’s government needed to take the trade talks more seriously.
“At some point the games have to stop,” Roth said. “We need serious discussions.” Join the queue, Herr Roth. Wales’ Drakeford and Scotland’s Sturgeon are looking for serious discussions too.
Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe.