UK Government ‘opposed regular meetings with First Ministers of Wales and Scotland during pandemic’, inquiry told
UK Government Ministers including Boris Johnson were reluctant to hold regular meetings with the leaders of Wales and Scotland during the pandemic because they feared a “potential federalist Trojan horse”, the UK Covid Inquiry has been told.
Inquiry Counsel Andrew O’Connor KC questioned Professor Ailsa Henderson of Edinburgh University about a series of letters written in the early period of the outbreak that have been disclosed to the inquiry.
On April 4 2020, in the middle of the first lockdown, First Ministers Mark Drakeford, Nicola Sturgeon and Arlene Foster wrote to Prime Minister Boris Johnson requesting involvement in a review of lockdown measures that was due to take place three weeks later.
Prof Henderson told the inquiry: “They’re identifying what they perceive to be weaknesses with existing opportunities to express their views and to influence UK decision-making.”
The First Ministers went on to call for a “transparent and collaborative approach to sharing and producing analysis, options”, saying such an approach would be the “minimum commensurate with an approach founded on partnership across the four nations”.
Two weeks later, on March 20, Mr Drakeford wrote a letter on his own to the then Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove requesting the establishment of a “regular rhythm” to meetings between the devolved nations and the Westminster government, where initially officials would meet in the early part of the week, then there is a meeting with Mr Gove in the middle of the week, and then finally a COBRA meeting [of senior Ministers and officials] at the end of the week – an attempt to put an orderly process in place to capture four nation decision-making.
Prof Henderson told the inquiry: “I think there are two things that are important here. The last line of the second paragraph [refers to the need to] ‘assist appreciation of difference where that is necessary’, [showing] an expectation that difference will be there, but in the previous line, this argument that there should be a ‘common approach’ is also a call for consensus and communication. So it’s not a letter from someone who is pursuing deviation or difference for the sake of it.”
Mr O’Connor then drew attention to “a different type of document” – an email within Whitehall that summarised a meeting between Mr Gove and the Secretaries of State for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, from which it was clear that they were against the approach suggested by Mr Drakeford and the other First Ministers.
The three Secretaries of State had cautioned that regular meetings wouldn’t mean that the devolved administrations would agree on the approach to Covid. Furthermore, said the document: “… regular meetings could be a ‘potential federalist Trojan horse’.”
Prof Henderson told the inquiry: “This is the most remarkable document I have read in a number of years. I mean, the phrase “potential federalist Trojan horse” jumps out, but so too, on the first page, a few references to the fact that the devolved administrations were ‘exposed’ to UK Government decision-making, as if being in the room and listening to what the UK Government was going to do was enough and satisfied commitments in terms of intergovernmental relations.
“I mean, it’s also clear that the Secretary of State for Scotland thought that weekly contact was too frequent and certainly didn’t want it to roll on after Covid, and wanted bilateral meetings rather than multilateral ones. So if we take it in the round, I think there’s a number of things going on, but for me what it looks like is that there were positions on intergovernmental relations and how the devolved administrations should be integrated within a UK-wide response that were not driven necessarily by what would be best able to respond to an epidemiological event.
“It’s clear that there was a desire to structure intergovernmental relations for ad hominem reasons, so there’s a clear effort to control or handle one of the First Ministers in particular [Nicola Sturgeon]. There is a fear of federalism, there is a fear of leaks, there is a perceived kind of venality or self-serving nature to the motives of the devolved administrations, and never a reflection that this might also be true for all actors, and no real expression in this document that it might improve decision-making if more voices from more parts of the UK were included in the decision-making.
“So that’s one thing to say. The other thing is that it looks to me like Michael Gove felt caught in the middle by this, and so we see this tension developing between the principles as laid out in the action plan and the principles in the Coronavirus Act and the reaction of [Cabinet Secretary] Mark Sedwill and the reaction of Michael Gove on the one hand, and then the views of the Prime Minister, the views of the Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the views of Number 10 as well in later documents, and there is a tension at the centre in terms of how the devolved administrations should be accommodated.”
The issues, and their consequences, will be discussed at later hearings of the inquiry.
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