No talking at the top: The 'four-nation approach' falters

Today has brought more evidence that the relationship between the UK and Welsh governments continues to be in a tricky phase, with the First Minister revealing that he hasn’t spoken to the Prime Minister for two and a half weeks.

Given that the current three-week period of reviewing the coronavirus lockdown comes to an end in a matter of days, it doesn’t bode well for the prospects of a united UK approach to any changes.

All four of the UK’s governments are due to look again on Thursday at the current restrictions as they are obliged to do every three weeks. Here in Wales there will be a cabinet meeting that day to decide which changes the First Minister will announce on Friday.

You can read more about the decision-making process in Wales here.

At the Welsh Government’s daily coronavirus briefing, Mark Drakeford was asked about his current contacts with the UK Government. He said that apart from regular discussions with the Welsh Secretary Simon Hart, he has had no conversation with the Prime Minister or any other Westminster cabinet minister since the last review date which was 28th May.

The First Minister said, “In terms of what I have wanted to see, that regular reliable rhythm of meetings with UK ministers, and the 'stop-start' arrangements we've had, I'm afraid we've been in a 'stop' part of that cycle for more than two weeks.”

These sort of statements annoy and frustrate the UK Government which says that the level of cooperation between the two governments is better than it has ever been. A few weeks ago, the Wales Office compiled a list of more than 110 ‘engagements’ since the start of the pandemic, including phone calls, video conferencing, Cobra discussions and other meetings which the Welsh government and other devolved administrations were involved in.

A UK Government spokesperson responded to the First Minister's comments by saying:

The Welsh Secretary wrote to the First Minister a month ago asking for a reciprocal arrangement whereby a UK Government official could be involved in some of the Welsh Government’s coronavirus meetings. I understand that that hasn’t happened as yet.

The First Minister said he had been having regular meetings with the Secretary of State Simon Hart (pictured) Credit: PA

Last week Simon Hart wrote again to the First Minister to criticise him for his stance towards reopening the tourism industry here in Wales. In his letter he wrote, “You and I should be working together to ensure that we mitigate the impacts on what has been a catastrophic year for [tourism businesses] so far.”

There was another falling out last week too when Welsh and Scottish ministers involved in Brexit talks pulled out a pre-EU summit meeting with the UK Government because they said the Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove had pre-empted any discussion by ruling out an extension to the transition period.

On the one hand, nobody should be surprised that the different governments are at odds. After all their political differences are many.

But they went into the emergency period of this coronavirus crisis united and despite some serious challenges and tension continued to make many of the biggest decisions together.

They have continued to say publicly that UK-wide action with regard to coronavirus is the best way, that each government would make its own decisions but try to do so in similar areas at similar times.

Instead the four nations are increasingly making decisions in isolation and at their own times. You may think they’re right to do that or wrong. But it’s increasingly difficult to keep calling it a ‘four-nation approach.’