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Covid-19: Devolved Administrations

Volume 808: debated on Friday 27 November 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what further steps they are taking to ensure a common approach between the UK Government and devolved administrations for COVID-19 related matters.

My Lords, I wish to ask a Question of which I have given private notice, on what steps, further to the joint Statement on UK-wide Christmas arrangements by the UK Government and devolved Administrations on Tuesday 24 November, Her Majesty’s Government will take to ensure a common approach to other Covid-19-related matters.

My Lords, the UK Government are committed to working with the devolved Administrations to protect the health of our citizens, communities and economies. We published a Statement on 25 September setting out this shared commitment, and our UK-wide approach to arrangements at Christmas is an example of it working in action. We will continue our substantive ministerial, official and scientific engagement to protect the lives and livelihoods of citizens across Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England.

My Lords, I am pleased at what, at last, has been achieved by the four Governments. As drafter of the first Welsh devolution Bills, I would always fight for the right of devolved Governments to take their own decisions on devolved matters, but I never contemplated that there would be so many differences on decisions around infections which know no boundaries. Has the apparent stubbornness been in Whitehall, Cardiff, Edinburgh or Belfast?

My Lords, I cast stones at nobody. I agree with the noble and learned Lord that co-operation is always the best route forward and posturing is never helpful. The Christmas alignment arose from a joint meeting at very high level on 2 September, which was followed up by four further high-level conversations. It is an example of co-operation in action.

My Lords, speaking as a Scot, Christmas is a secondary festival to new year for many of us. What steps have been taken to address issues of cross-border policing for the whole of the festive period?

My Lords, as the noble Baroness knows, I am not a line Minister on this specific question, but I will ensure that she is advised on the matter.

The next speaker is the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern. He is not answering, so I call the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley. There is a problem with the sound, so we will come back to the noble Lord. I call the noble Lord, Lord Reid of Cardowan.

My Lords, like many in this Chamber, I very much welcome the UK-wide discussions to help us combat Covid. It is always better when we are helping each other. In that context, how much, as a total, have the UK Government distributed in consequentials and Covid-related expenditure to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?

My Lords, the noble Lord asks a very important question. I fear I cannot answer with a specific figure, but I will write to the noble Lord and advise others on that matter. As he says, the UK Government have procured vaccines for the whole of the United Kingdom. The Joint Biosecurity Centre, part of NHS Test and Trace, is UK-wide, and the UK Government provide testing capacity to all the devolved Administrations, including operating testing sites across the United Kingdom. Mutual aid and co-operation across and between all four nations has, in our judgment, been a key part in ensuring that PPE gets to where it is needed. I will write on the figures.

My Lords, I am sure the Minister would agree that optics are important in fighting a campaign. One problem that we face in fighting the Covid epidemic is that quite often the Prime Minister has seemed to be uttering appeals from the imperial Parliament. Should not he take advice from, or the example of, his hero Churchill, who in 1940 who brought in the Opposition and presented a national front? Should not a special COBRA meeting be set up and meet regularly, involving opposition leaders and the leaders of the four nations? That would send a message of national unity that is missing at the moment.

My Lords, again, I do not agree with taking this to my right honourable friend the Prime Minister who leads in taking decisions and is involved in conversations. I think it is more important to stress the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Reid, that there is active, high-level engagement across the Governments and that is securing progress. We believe in devolution, and the devolved Administrations have public health responsibilities. I repeat that co-operation exists and should continue to exist.

My Lords, I want to add to the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, about the position of Scotland and the jubilation which surrounds the new year. In the north of England we have over the years been accustomed to a massive migration of Scots going back to Scotland for new year and then coming back to England or elsewhere afterwards. It is essential that the rules that apply to Christmas also apply to the new year so that the Scots can fully enjoy their traditional holiday. Therefore, it is crucial that there is the utmost co-operation between the devolved Administrations, particularly with Scotland, so that jubilation does not increase the level of Covid outbreaks.

My Lords, I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, and I say to my noble friend that, of course, I appreciate the importance of new year, particularly in Scotland, but to many others. I cannot advise the House specifically on this position, as I explained in answer to the earlier question, but I will take away the questions raised and seek further advice for your Lordships.

My Lords, the Government and the DAs are right to prioritise children’s schooling. However, this is endangering the lives of those parents who are at exceptional risk from Covid. They are told by the Government to self-isolate, yet have children coming home from school every day, often having been exposed to Covid. I declare my personal interest. Can the Minister work with the DAs to ensure that these parents are at the front of the queue with front-line health workers for the first MHRA-approved vaccine? If not, we can expect excess deaths among these relatively young parents.

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes a very important point. It is obviously within the wider construct, which is that it is vital that young children secure education at the most formative stage of their lives—I think that there is broad agreement on that. Regarding the very important specific issue that she raised, as she knows, there is constant discussion between the chief medical officers of the four devolved Administrations, and I will ensure that her question is brought to the attention of all those involved.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble and learned friend Lord Morris of Aberavon for securing this important Private Notice Question. In recent months, we have seen increasing divergence in the approaches taken across the four nations of the UK. We welcome the recent agreement regarding restrictions over the Christmas period and hope that it represents the beginning of a shift in the Government’s relationships with the devolved Administrations in relation to the pandemic and, indeed, other issues. Can the Minister confirm what, if any, new structures will be put in place to formalise dialogue and data exchange across the four nations as we move into the new year and the next—and, I hope, final—phase in the fight against this awful disease?

My Lords, I repeat what I said before. There is a public health responsibility, which is devolved, and obviously decisions are taken by the devolved Administrations on how they wish to apply and use those powers. As I indicated, a network of co-operation exists: I gave the example of over 20 calls involving my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the senior Ministers involved in the devolved Administrations, and the CMOs meet regularly. Christmas has been a good example, but we must work within the devolved structure and in line with how all those involved choose to operate it.

My Lords, I very much agree that there should be close co-operation between the four Governments on arrangements to facilitate travel across the UK over the Christmas break, but does the Minister accept that the devolved regimes would find this very much easier if the Westminster Government gave them adequate notice of their intentions, to enable timely discussion to take place before final decisions were made? Co-operation is a two-way street. For it to blossom, it must be on the basis of mutual respect, but that has not always been evident from the Prime Minister over the past eight months.

My Lords, I have an arm’s-length brief on meetings, discussions and calls that have taken place at various levels, in addition to the continual engagement at official level. I am glad that noble Lords are pleased with the example of Christmas co-operation, but I think that the best way forward is to throw not stones but co-operation at each other. We have sought a co-ordinated approach wherever possible and where the evidence shows that this will make the response more effective. This co-ordination has taken place in many aspects of the response, including travel corridors, higher education and the work of the Joint Biosecurity Centre.

My Lords, should we not all recognise that, unlike in a real war, the present Government are fighting an invisible and still not fully understood enemy, while being offered an array of conflicting expert opinions in the full glare of publicity? Therefore, great restraint really has to be exercised if we are to help bolster public resolve, which, in the end, is what we all depend on if this virus is to be defeated.

My noble friend makes an extraordinarily important point, and indeed it is something that is always emphasised by the Prime Minister and all the others who speak to the nation. A lot rests on us—the way that we behave, our sense of responsibility and our common resolve. We should not let those things flag. I frequently note now as I walk down the road that people make no effort to social distance at all. That is in sharp contrast to the observance of space, which was in practice in the original lockdown. Washing your hands, giving space and observing the rules are very important.

How often are the four leaders scheduled to meet? Does the Minister recognise that in Wales the distance-aware message means that people still consistently create distance in the street? Also, can he tell us what agreed UK-wide permissions are in place to allow very close relatives of people who are dying, whether they are at home or in a hospice, to visit, even across long distances? For these people, the memories of the last days and weeks will live on for the rest of their lives.

My Lords, I cannot comment on the timing of specific or planned meetings. I have assured the House that a very long and continuing process of engagement takes place. I understand the very sensitive point that the noble Baroness makes and I have sympathy for it. I do not know the specific position that may or may not have been agreed between the parties involved, but I will get advice and let her know.

My Lords, speaking as someone who lives in Northumberland not far from the Anglo-Scottish border and where people on both sides often identify as “Borderers”, I am in favour of maximum co-ordination between the devolved authorities. Has the Minister seen the report of the Institute for Government outlining some of the problems that have been experienced and suggesting ways forward for working better together in future?

I have not seen the specific report, but I can only repeat that there has been extensive engagement with the DAs throughout the crisis, with regular ministerial engagement, including the calls that I have referred to, and devolved Administration attendance at COBRA meetings. As an example, I refer back to the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay. Through discussions between the four nations’ chief medical officers, we have also aligned advice and guidance to the clinically extremely vulnerable throughout the pandemic, dependent on restrictions in each nation at the time, and for the Christmas period. I assure the noble Baroness and the House that the reality is a common desire to defeat a common enemy. I wish that we could accentuate that resolve and not pick at the occasional differences that arise. There is a lot of work to be done.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Private Notice Question has elapsed. I am sorry about the lack of communication with the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig.