Devolution and the Coronavirus pandemic in Wales: doing things differently, doing things together?

In a Senedd debate in May both First Minister Mark Drakeford and Welsh Brexit Party Leader Mark Reckless found themselves agreeing that the Coronavirus pandemic had raised the profile of devolution more than anything else in the last 20 years. Unsurprisingly, they drew rather different conclusions from this common observation. But it underlines how in the last three months many people in and beyond Wales have become increasingly conscious of devolution.

The most visible way in which the pandemic has highlighted devolution in the UK has been in the different responses from each nation. While all four countries have (mostly) shared a common overall approach, the specific health advice – and, crucially, the legislation and guidance that aims to put it into practice – has differed in each nation. Partly this is because some important and relevant policy areas, like health and education, are devolved anyway. But when the UK Parliament passed the Coronavirus Act in March, it also devolved the vitally important power to make the regulations that would specify exactly how daily life would change as governments try to bring the pandemic under control. So, from rules about exercise and social contact, to arrangements for reopening schools and shops, and whether and when you should cover your face, the four governments have all taken slightly different decisions.

Some people may ask why, if the science of infection control is the same on both sides of Offa’s Dyke, the rules and policies designed to control infection should be different. The answer is that policymaking is- and in a democracy arguably should be – shaped by political ideology and culture as well as evidence. The Welsh Government has certainly presented its more restrictive approach to lockdown as part of a distinctive policy style, more precautionary than that of England, and the result has been that many people have become more aware that it can do things differently– sometimes to their surprise and cost.

But although this is the side of devolution that gets noticed, there is another, less obvious, side that is perhaps equally important. That is the extent to which a devolved government has a say in decisions that affect the UK as a whole. Scholars refer to these two sides as self-rule and shared rule.

Shared rule has, in some ways, been the ‘poor relation’ of devolution in the UK. Since 1999, there have been formal structures for relations between the four governments, but they have, to say the least, not worked consistently well.  More recently Brexit, and the need to create common UK frameworks to replace EU frameworks for devolved matters like agriculture or fisheries, exposed fundamentally different views of how far shared rule should operate in the UK.  Broadly, the UK Government has often believed that while decisions about common matters should be made in consultation with the devolved governments, in the end they are its responsibility.

The Welsh and Scottish governments, in contrast, have taken the view that decisions should be made by negotiation on a much more equal basis: in fact the Welsh Government’s document Reforming Our Union, prompted by Brexit, effectively calls for the UK to be reformed as a sort of mini-EU, with the four nations having the same relation to the Union as the member states have to the EU.

How does this relate to the Coronavirus pandemic? There have been some areas where common overall frameworks have been helpful to save duplication of efforts and resources. Passing the Coronavirus Act at Westminster, for example, meant that Cardiff Bay and Holyrood did not have to draft and pass separate primary legislation. Public Health England has also assumed partial responsibilities across the UK in areas like testing and a contact tracing app.

More complex questions arise when you have measures which are taken at a UK level, which can affect devolved decisions. For example, the furlough scheme has been hugely important in helping keep workers in Wales in jobs while much of the economy has been shut down. A scheme on that scale has had to be funded by the UK Government: the First Minister and Economy Minister Ken Skates have said that Wales would not have the ‘financial firepower’ to fund the scheme by itself. But there is a clear risk in these schemes being dependant on decisions taken in London while public health decisions about reopening parts of the economy are devolved. This could lead to a situation where schemes wind down in England while Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are still under more restrictive measures. Some structure of shared decision-making is needed. But while there was quite close collaboration between the governments in March and April, this now appears to have faltered: by mid-May the First Minister was describing the relationship as a ‘start-stop process’.

So what does the Coronavirus pandemic tell us about devolution? First, it has undoubtedly made people more aware that some things are devolved. Second, it offers the devolved governments an opportunity to show how they can do things differently- particularly if different changes to lockdown measures result in different economic or public health outcomes. Third, it reminds us that, increasingly, shared rule as well as self-rule has to be part of the devolution settlement. It has become commonplace that things will need to change after the pandemic. And one of those things may be the relationship between the governments of the UK.