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Covid-19: UK-wide Discussions

Volume 803: debated on Tuesday 9 June 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Governments to coordinate a United Kingdom-wide approach to relaxing the restrictions in place to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

My Lords, the UK Government have worked closely with the devolved Administrations throughout this crisis. There have been discussions between Ministers and officials, and this engagement will continue. [Inaudible.] Citizens in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should follow the equivalent guidelines issued by their respective Administrations.

My Lords, the diversity of decision-making between the four nations of the UK, in particular regarding health, is an integral part of the devolution settlement and is to be welcomed, not criticised. However, the diversity in communicating public information has been woeful at times during the 12 weeks of this lockdown. To the best of my knowledge, there have been no joint simultaneous statements by the Prime Minister and the three First Ministers, and no joint simultaneous parliamentary or Written Statements by the Health or Business Ministers during this whole period. Will the Minister, on behalf of the Government, give a commitment to try to do better than this as we move out of lockdown and try to avoid a resurgence of the virus next winter? Can we ensure that, even where there are differences, we communicate with clarity why they exist, and ensure that each part of this United Kingdom knows exactly what the rules and regulations are in its area?

I am sorry to interrupt but the reception is so bad on this Question that I ask the House to adjourn briefly, for five minutes, so that we can get the difficulties sorted out.

Sitting suspended.

My Lords, in view of the circumstances, we will start again with the Question in the name of the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, and go on from there.

My Lords, with apologies to the House, I will repeat the Answer I gave earlier. The United Kingdom Government have worked closely with the devolved Administrations throughout the crisis. There have been frequent discussions between Ministers and officials. This engagement will continue. As we set out in our road map to recovery, the virus may be spreading at different speeds across the United Kingdom, and measures may need to change in different ways and at different times. Citizens in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should follow the equivalent guidance issued by their respective Administrations.

My Lords, the divergence of decision-making during this lockdown period is something to celebrate, not criticise. It is an integral part of the devolution settlement and has made for better decision-making for each individual health service and other aspects of government in the four nations. However, at times, the public communication of those decisions has been woeful. The lack of co-ordination between the public announcements of the four Health Ministers and the four Business Ministers—and even between the Prime Minister and the three First Ministers—has created confusion and, occasionally, distress in the four nations. I urge the Minister to give a commitment on behalf of the Government to seek to improve this co-ordination of public information, communication and explanation as we emerge from lockdown and try to avoid a second spike or a resurgence of the virus in the winter.

My Lords, I understand the point that the noble Lord makes. He is right that there is a devolution settlement and that these matters are devolved. Clear communication to citizens has been a priority throughout the crisis. We have tried to make clear, and have made clear, which measures apply to citizens in each of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, including through making this explicit in UK Government guidance.

My Lords, many families are spread across the United Kingdom. Does the Minister agree that, when it comes to the opportunity for families to reunite in person, the more integrated the approach across the United Kingdom, the fairer and better it will be for everyone?

My Lords, I think that the noble Lord strikes a chord with every citizen in this country when he speaks of the importance of family and the sacrifices that families have had to make. We are seeking to confront the virus as one United Kingdom. I welcome the fact that, in different places, it is now easier for family members to reunite than it was at the start of the lockdown. But I take the noble Lord’s point. We will always seek to proceed out of this crisis as a United Kingdom.

My Lords, the co-ordination between certain departments of Her Majesty’s Government and the devolved Governments of the UK has been a little confusing. Aviation is an example of a reserved matter. However, two weeks ago, the Secretary of State for Transport announced that general aviation could happen again because it was determined that the risk of contributing to increased infection was minimal. As a reserved matter, it follows that the DfT has a UK-wide responsibility for GA, yet only last week, pilots in Scotland were permitted to take to the skies while those in Wales and Northern Ireland are still waiting for the go-ahead. What discussions, if any, are taking place between the Government and the devolved Administrations about achieving a consistent UK-wide approach to general aviation?

My Lords, I fear that I am not a specialist in aviation matters, but I will write to the noble Lord on this important topic.

My Lords, at present, who in government is responsible for co-ordinating contact with the devolved nations? Lately, on at least one occasion, one of the devolved Administrations learned of a policy decision by central government involving public health issues from the media. Is that acceptable?

My Lords, good communication should always be striven for. That is the Government’s objective. At the outset of the crisis, the United Kingdom Government established a Cabinet committee structure to deal with the health, economic, public sector and international impacts of Covid-19 on behalf of the whole of the UK. Ministers from the devolved Administrations have regularly been invited to participate in these discussions. We are certainly committed to ensuring that the Administrations are informed and involved at every stage.

My Lords, further to the Minister’s reply, can he now tell the House why the Secretary of State did not inform, let alone consult, the First Minister of Wales—as a matter of courtesy, let alone practicality—that he was planning to make face masks mandatory on public transport? The First Minister has put it this way:

“We’re going to have to … find out from them the extent to which they have got answers to these questions, in advance of making the decision, or whether it’s a matter of making the headline, and then worrying about the detail afterwards.”

My Lords, I note what the noble Baroness says, but Welsh government officials and Ministers have been involved in COBRA meetings, committees and dozens of other meetings with UK government Ministers and officials since the pandemic began. This will continue to be a key part of the planning and communication of the overall response. We strive to do the best at all times. If there are failures, they are to be regretted, but we should go forward together as a United Kingdom.

My Lords, a recent Welsh political barometer poll showed that by a margin of four to one the Welsh public strongly prefer the Welsh Government’s approach to easing the lockdown. Does the Minister not agree that this pandemic has shown the ability of the devolved Administrations not only to work differently but to achieve better outcomes in response to the needs of their citizens?

My Lords, the purpose of the devolution settlement is to enable the devolved Administrations to respond as they believe right to local needs. I repeat that I believe that there is a high level of co-ordination, co-operation and understanding between all authorities involved in fighting this crisis.

My Lords, in recognising the need to co-ordinate between the Government and the devolved Administrations, does my noble friend recognise that the requirement for two-metre social distancing above all else is preventing us reopening our economy? Can my noble friend tell the House what research the Government have that leads them to a different conclusion from the World Health Organization and most European Governments, which recommend one or 1.5-metre social distancing? What steps are the Government taking to reduce this from two metres, and when?

My Lords, the Government are guided by science at all stages of the crisis; the advice we have given has been on that basis. The advice is constantly under review by SAGE, but I can give no guarantees as to when or whether any change will be announced.

My Lords, the Secretary of State for Health has assured us that all care home workers and patients will be tested. Can the Minister confirm that this has taken place throughout the United Kingdom? Is he aware that in Scotland, sadly, coronavirus deaths have now overtaken hospital deaths, with 46% of deaths in Scotland in care homes versus 29% in England and Wales? Surely the Minister agrees that testing patients and care workers in care homes throughout the whole of the UK should be an immediate priority for the Government.

My Lords, I cannot add to what my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health said, but I can underline one’s concern for every resident of care homes. As my right honourable friend said, that testing is available. He announced yesterday evening that the testing will be extended to a wider range of care homes, not only those for the elderly.

Following on from my noble friend Lady Andrews’s question, the Minister might take on board that there are some definite communication difficulties from the centre to Wales. What specifically will the Government do to ensure that people living on the long border between England and Wales understand and abide by the different lockdown rules?

My Lords, regardless of where a person lives, if they are in Wales, they are subject to Welsh rules, and vice versa if they are in England. That is a clear position and one that I reiterate.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has now elapsed; I thank noble Lords for taking part today. That concludes the hybrid proceedings on Oral Questions.

Sitting suspended.