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Co-ordinated Response to Covid-19: Devolved Administrations

Volume 683: debated on Wednesday 11 November 2020

What recent steps he has taken to ensure effective co-operation between the Government and the devolved Administrations. (908450)

What recent steps his Department has taken to help ensure co-ordination between Scotland and the other nations of the UK in response to the covid-19 outbreak. (908452)

What recent steps his Department has taken to help ensure co-ordination between Scotland and the other nations of the UK in response to the covid-19 outbreak. (908458)

An effective response to covid-19 does indeed need to be a co-ordinated response across the UK. On 25 September, the UK Government and the three devolved Administrations published a joint statement on our collective approach to responding to covid-19. There are very regular meetings at both ministerial and official levels.

What is the Minister’s understanding of the application of the furlough scheme in Scotland and the other nations of the UK, given that Scotland is operating under a different tier system and different lockdown restrictions?

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has not vaporised into thin air. The lockdown scheme extends across the UK and is available whether a part of the UK—or a part of each nation within the UK—is in lock- down or not. It is there for everyone.

The Scottish Affairs Committee described a deteriorating relationship between the UK and Scottish Governments on joined-up covid-19 policy making, with the main issue being trust. What work has the Secretary of State undertaken to improve awareness and understanding of devolution among Whitehall officials, so that policy makers have mutual understanding of the impact of decisions on each nation of the UK?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. As I said in my initial answer, there are very regular discussions between all Government Departments and devolved Administrations at many levels—be that in Health, Transport or Education. I think that there is a widespread understanding of the need to balance UK-wide interventions with allowing local flexibilities where circumstances dictate.

Will the Minister confirm or deny that taxpayers’ money is being used to employ consultants with the sole purpose of producing and promoting negative propaganda to encounter the increasingly successful campaign for Scottish independence? Is that not to the detriment of co-operation between the nations?

Forgive me, Mr Speaker, but I am not quite sure what that has got to do with the response to coronavirus.

I join the Secretary of State in recognising that it is the 11th day of the 11th month, lest we forget those who gave their lives so that we could live freely today. We will always remember them.

I am disappointed that the Secretary of State did not congratulate President-elect Joe Biden on his wonderful election in America. Given that in a recent poll 75% of Scots said that they would vote for Joe Biden, they have eventually got the Government they would have voted for.

The announcement this week of a potential covid vaccine is incredibly positive. While it certainly does not mean, of course, that we have reached the end of this crisis, it does perhaps signal some hope for the public. If the vaccine is approved, the country will face an unprecedented logistical challenge. If mass vaccination is to be done successfully, we will need all levels of government working together. However, a poll just yesterday found that two thirds of Scots were dissatisfied that the Scottish and UK Governments do not work together and a majority wanted closer co-operation. Can the Minister inform the House what work the UK and Scottish Governments are undertaking together to build an infrastructure that will be able to distribute and administer any future vaccines to everyone?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question. Referring to his initial comments, I was delighted that President-elect Biden spoke to our Prime Minister ahead of any other European country, contrary to what some of the naysayers in the media were predicting.

The hon. Gentleman’s substantial question is a very important one and it illustrates the extent to which the UK Government and the devolved Administrations can and should work together. The vaccine—as he said, we are not quite there yet, but it gives very strong hope—is purchased by the UK Government on behalf of the whole UK. The distribution, the prioritisation, of the vaccine will be a matter for the devolved Administrations. However, we are in regular contact and stand ready to assist with any logistics that will be required to make sure that it is distributed on the basis of clinical priority and not any other needs.

I appreciate what the Minister said, but I think the public would look on it very unfavourably if both Governments did not work together to ensure that this vaccine is distributed.

But we also must not lose sight of today’s challenges. While the Chancellor’s latest plan to extend furlough until March is very welcome, there remain millions of people across the UK and in Scotland who have not received any support as lockdowns continue. The 3 million taxpayers excluded from Government support include countless self-employed people, pay-as-you-earn freelancers, and many, many others. It is understandable that there may have been some cracks in hastily designed schemes announced in March, but not to fix those and to continue to exclude millions from any support is inexcusable. I raised this with the Secretary of State in the House on 1 July and 7 October, so, for the third time: will the Scotland Office demand that the Chancellor reconsiders and provides support to those taxpayers left without any help from this Government?

The hon. Gentleman’s question would have greater potency if furlough were indeed the only scheme that was available, but a wide range of support is available for businesses and individuals across the UK, including bounce back loans, tax deferrals, mortgage holidays and the like. In addition, the Chancellor has provided the Scottish Government with unprecedented levels of support, going up by an additional £1 billion. It is up to the Scottish Government, if they wish to provide additional support over and above the UK-wide schemes, to ensure that they have the resources to do so.

Order. Can I just say that I am very concerned that the question was a substantive question that was within this grouping? The problem is that the grouping is not good, but it was the Government who put the grouping together. So I think the Minister ought to try to see if he could answer the question from Allan Dorans, because it is within that section.

If I remember the question correctly, it was, “Are we spending taxpayers’ money on fighting the independence referendum?” My answer to that is that we do not wish another independence referendum. The last thing that the people of Scotland need, and businesses and jobs in Scotland need, is the uncertainty that another independence referendum would create.