Almost 1,200km divide the Isle of Wight, off the south coast of England, from the town of Thurso in northern Scotland. The UK is the third most populous country in Europe (after Germany and France). So it is not remotely surprising that while regional variations in Covid-19 infection rates were less pronounced than in some countries, the pandemic has been experienced differently depending on where you live. England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all feature in the top eight European countries for excess deaths. But England, in first place, has fared far worse than Northern Ireland, in eighth.
Dealing with these differences was bound to be a challenge, as were all aspects of the pandemic response. But the requirement for differentiation both between and within the different nations of the UK was a task for which our state was particularly ill-equipped. Changing the habit of a lifetime is arguably even harder during a crisis than in normal times. And despite significant steps towards devolution in England over the past decade, the UK remains chronically over-centralised. Local and regional government (particularly in England where 84% of the population lives) is far weaker than in comparable countries.
But if it is not surprising that ministers defaulted to a secretive, top-down approach at the first sign of trouble, the failure to build effective partnerships with leaders in Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast and across England still counts among the government’s biggest mistakes. The breach with Scotland that opened when the prime minister began to chart a route out of lockdown in May shows no sign of being mended. Meanwhile frustration across England is growing, as council leaders and directors of public health watch their fears about the pitfalls of a centralised tracking and tracing system coming true.
Leicester was the first city to have a local lockdown imposed after the health secretary, Matt Hancock, and his colleagues realised that their initial reluctance to sanction such measures, in the interests of national unity, was mistaken. Public health experts and politicians in Bradford, Luton and Blackburn have all since added their voices to a chorus of disapproval for the government’s top-down handling of the deteriorating situation in particular places. Correctly, they argue that local authorities, and not outsourcing giants such as Serco and Sitel, should have been put in charge of infection control, and encouraged to make use of existing community links when telephone or email tracing efforts did not produce results.
It is not yet clear what effect Sunday’s decision by Manchester police and politicians to declare a major incident, following a sharp rise in Covid-19 cases, will have on Whitehall decision-makers or on the outbreak itself. A tightening of restrictions across an area also including West Yorkshire had been imposed by ministers several days earlier.
But against the backdrop outlined above, the twin messages sent by the announcement are easy to read and should be welcomed – even if the details remain to be teased out. The first and most important is to the general public in the Greater Manchester area: be careful, because the risk to your health and that of others has increased. Do not make the mistake of thinking the threat is confined to a particular group. While recent infections in Oldham have been mainly among Pakistani and Bangladeshi people, 80% of new cases in Trafford are white. The second message, to politicians in London, is: we are in charge.
As throughout this pandemic, the challenge for the authorities is to communicate in such a way as to maximise the positive effects on health, while minimising other harms, including the social divisions created by the pandemic’s differential impact on different groups. Ceding more powers to councils is not, on its own, a solution. But ministers must, as a matter of urgency, get better at working as partners rather than bosses.