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Covid-19: Co-ordination with Devolved Administrations

Volume 813: debated on Thursday 8 July 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the devolved Administrations to co-ordinate relaxing Covid-19 restrictions across the United Kingdom; and what assessment they have made of the need to agree such co-ordination.

My Lords, the United Kingdom Government have worked closely with the devolved Administrations throughout the Covid-19 response. Although public health is a devolved matter in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, our joint statement last September demonstrates our continuing commitment to seek a co-ordinated approach where the evidence and the science show it would save lives or make a response more effective to work together to protect lives across the UK.

My Lords, each step to restore some form of normality should be taken after full discussion between the four UK nations. England might call 19 July “freedom day” and end some restrictions, but Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are not going to follow suit. We will have confusion and worse. We need full consultation. Who in the various Parliaments takes these decisions? Should we not consider legislation to make proper discussions legally required in any future crisis?

My Lords, there are many discussions, and thoughtful decisions are made by the people responsible in all the devolved Administrations and the UK Government, I have no doubt. However, public health is a devolved matter in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and those Administrations have the authority to make their own decisions.

My Lords, for families spread out across the UK who want to plan their summer holidays—I declare an interest as I am heading up to Scotland over the summer—surely the rules across the four nations should be the same wherever possible. All four nations have previously said they would follow the data, not the dates, but suddenly our Prime Minister seems to be driven more by dates than statistics. With this in mind, can the Minister expand a bit more on the discussions he talked about between the four nations? Are we looking at a further joint communiqué? September last year feels a long time ago.

My Lords, I understand the concern of the noble Lord and many citizens of the United Kingdom about the future and how we move forward. The Prime Minister made a considered statement last week and will make another statement on Monday about the next steps forward as he sees them. Throughout the crisis we have been more aligned than we are apart. There have been scores of calls between the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the First Ministers in the three Administrations.

Ideally, devolution allows for divergence across the nations and co-operation to deal with common interests and issues. That has been demonstrated throughout the pandemic, but Great Britain is an island with open borders and right now Scotland has the highest infection rate in Europe. The two main hospitals in the Grampian health board area—the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary and Dr Gray’s Hospital in Elgin—along with Raigmore Hospital in Inverness are on black alert dealing with only urgent and emergency cases as a result of catch-up for non-Covid, increasing Covid admissions and staff shortages because of Covid and isolation rules. Will Ministers across Governments work to ensure that as we move to lift restrictions we do so in a co-ordinated way that avoids the chaos and confusion that might otherwise occur?

My Lords, there has been extraordinary support from the United Kingdom Government to the devolved Administrations, Scotland not least, both financial and practical. Indeed, I believe the UK Government have provided around 55% of tests in Scotland. However, I return to the fundamental point. I shall not comment on the performance of the devolved Administrations as I do not think that is appropriate, but they have devolved authority to act on public health within their borders.

What assessment have the Government made of the impact of the relaxation of Covid restrictions in England on the other parts of the UK when the inevitable behavioural changes impact on the devolved nations? Did that include cost estimates? Has consideration been given to transport systems moving people from one part of the UK to another? Will the transport police be supported in ensuring that passengers respect the infection control measures that are greatest along the route of the journey, whether the origin or the destination country?

My Lords, my advice is that everybody should respect the rules in place. Rules are normally clear in whichever part of the United Kingdom. Further announcements are being made as we go along. My right honourable friend the Transport Secretary made an announcement on travel this morning, for example, and there will be further announcements next Monday. Of course all public health factors are taken into consideration.

Today’s letter in the Lancet from 100 eminent doctors and scientists, including a former Chief Scientific Adviser and the current head of the BMA, whose members will have to pick up the pieces, warns that the 19 July relaxation of restrictions shows the Government

“embarking on a dangerous and unethical experiment”

and calls for a pause in the plans. The letter talks of “grave risks”, with

“any strategy that tolerates high levels of infection”


“a dangerous and unethical experiment”.

In the light of this, will the Government engage urgently with these experts and the devolved Governments to ensure the safety of all our people across the four nations?

My Lords, the Government naturally respect informed voices. I do not think that the publication place necessarily establishes authority; we have seen recent examples. There are diverging opinions, which Ministers and those in the devolved Administrations have to take into account. There are also divergent issues. The noble Baroness did not mention the impact on the economy, mental health, people’s expectation or children. All these matters have to be taken into account as we reflect on decisions.

Does the Minister accept that for residents in Northern Ireland, including those travelling to England and Scotland but particularly those requiring regular travel in and out of the Republic, the situation at the moment is incredibly confusing and bureaucratic? What discussions have the Government had with Dublin, in addition to those with Scotland, to find common ground by either applying the CTA to Northern Ireland or allowing Northern Ireland residents to apply for an EU digital Covid certificate as part of the Northern Ireland agreement on cross-border trade?

My Lords, I confess that I cannot comment in detail on discussions with the Republic of Ireland but I will ensure that I inform the noble Lord appropriately.

My Lords, my Ulster Unionist colleague, the Northern Ireland Health Minister, Robin Swann, has been one of the heroes of the pandemic. I know that he has appreciated the co-operation, co-ordination and support offered to him and to the Province by the United Kingdom Government. However, given the success of the four-nation approach to tackling Covid-19, should we not now be working equally as closely towards the goal of bringing down NHS waiting lists, which in Northern Ireland were already much longer than anywhere else in the United Kingdom before the first lockdown and have worsened considerably ever since?

My Lords, the Prime Minister met the First Minister on 3 June to discuss Covid recovery. I say to the noble Lord that clinical co-operation is ingrained in the NHS, and there are mutual and specialised commissioning arrangements already in place between the nations that allow patients to access services across the UK. We hope that these arrangements, as well as data sharing and best practice, will help to ensure a strong recovery and deliver tangible outcomes in the interests of people throughout the United Kingdom.

My Lords, further to that last answer and the point made by my colleague, my noble friend Lord Bruce, about the situation in Scottish hospitals at the moment, I am sure the Minister is aware that one of the biggest impacts of the coronavirus on health now is not those directly infected but those who have other health problems but cannot get treatment or whose treatment has been hugely delayed. What is the Government’s assessment of the impact of the changes that they are now making regarding coronavirus on dealing with the enormous backlogs in the NHS? What co-ordinated action across the nations is taking place to deal with the problem of the many patients who are not suffering from coronavirus?

My Lords, I think I partially answered that in my previous reply. I can certainly assure the noble Lord and the House that the Government at the highest level are giving the highest priority to the recovery of the NHS and the treatment of cases other than Covid.