Do lockdown differences strengthen or weaken UK's coronavirus effort?

There are now slightly different lockdown rules in different parts of the UK.

You will soon be able to drive somewhere to take your exercise in England, but you will be told to stay local in Wales - even though on both sides of the border, you can leave your house more than once a day.

They are relatively minor differences, but they could cause some confusion.

For instance if you live in England and decide to drive to Wales for your exercise, you risk being turned back by police even though you are following the rules where you live.

Political leaders say the differences simply reflect the different priorities of each part of the United Kingdom. UK Government sources say that, in fact, it strengthens the UK-wide approach.

The First Ministers were involved in a meeting of Cobra today and able to signal agreement in principle to a new UK-wide Covid-alert system to decide if new lockdowns are needed in the future.

In his phone call with the First Ministers last week, Boris Johnson said the UK-wide approach wasn't undermined "if different parts of the UK begin to move at slightly different speeds. Those decisions will be made based on the science for each nation."

And Mark Drakeford also said last week that devolution "is showing its strengths" in the coronavirus crisis. Governments make the big decisions together and take different decisions depending on the situation on the ground that they're facing.

In the end, and despite the eye-opening headlines predicting "freedom" last week, Boris Johnson defied those who wanted him to signal that lockdown had ended in England and erred on the side of caution, making it clear that the restrictions continue in England for another three weeks as they will in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

But getting to that point has proven difficult and divisive, and has risked breaking up the political consensus which has held firm during the coronavirus crisis.

Credit: PA


As I wrote on Friday, the agreement between the UK's different governments on how to tackle the coronavirus crisis has faltered this week after two months of proving surprisingly resilient.

What is now clear is there wasn't really any need for it to have frayed at all, because all four governments are extending the lockdown with only minor changes and minor differences and all are looking at ways of easing restrictions in the future.

Given that they still broadly agree, right now it doesn't really matter if any leader or politician has had their nose put out of joint because the task in hand is so much more important.

But when questions come to be asked about this period in the inevitable inquiries, amongst the most serious will be why cross-party, inter-governmental consensus was put at risk and by whom?

Not that cooperation has ended. Far from it. Officials haven't stopped communicating with each other and won't stop doing so.

Where things seem to have broken down is between ministers. The First Ministers took part in a conference call with the Prime Minister on Thursday and Michael Gove on Friday. But that was the first communication between Prime Minister and First Ministers in the two weeks since he returned to work and in the Friday conversation I understand there was little discussion about specifics ahead of the Sunday statement.

That gap left the devolved governments making their own lockdown decisions on the day set for reviewing the regulations not knowing if they were in keeping with what would be announced for England.

By contrast, in the run up to the first review of the lockdown three weeks ago, senior ministers in the four governments spent a week talking to each other before agreeing unanimously.

Message mix-up:

There was some criticism of the UK government's slogan, which the FM said did not apply in Wales Credit: PA

Slogans have more or less importance at different times but "Stay Home, Save Lives" has been powerful, simple and adopted by governments, health officials and the countless members of the public who've chalked it on pavements, painted it on rainbows or added it to social media profiles.

In one sense recognising that the stay at home message is going to change is sensible recognition of the transition period we all will be entering in due course.

But to see the new 'stay alert' message rejected by Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish leaders, opposition party leaders and some within the cabinet and Conservative party itself seems to have been an unnecessary distraction and a battle the Prime Minister didn't need to have at this stage.

Every opposition leader raised their concerns about the change during a conference call with Boris Johnson earlier. One opposition source says there was 'no answer, no justification' from him.

Justification came in an explanatory note sent out by Number 10 but that only seemed to add to the sense that a simple message had been replaced by a confusing one.

The UK Government insists it is clear and that 'staying alert' includes staying at home but allows a little more freedom for using your common sense.

Anyway, all governments have emphasised that everything that's been announced is conditional. The first hint that the spread of the virus is increasing and everything will be reviewed, potentially changed and lockdown rules tightened again.