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UK Government ‘opposed regular meetings with First Ministers of Wales and Scotland during pandemic’, inquiry told

11 Oct 2023 5 minute read
Mark Drakeford, Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon

Martin Shipton

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”.

Orderly process

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’.”

Remarkable

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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Twm Llewelyn
7 months ago

Why was there no Welsh inquiry?

Fi yn unig
Fi yn unig
7 months ago
Reply to  Twm Llewelyn

The answer to that is contained in the article. One authoritarian top down decree, non recognition of the devolved nations and bloody minded ignorance. If they wanted all the control and recognition for their decision making, the Tory government must take full responsibility for the debacle. The Tories decided to speak only to their appointed mates to maintain boot down subversion illustrated by the fact that when the devolved leaders varied the timings and measures implemented, all that mattered to the UK government while people were dying was to release their right wing press attack dogs to savage them.

Jeff
Jeff
7 months ago

Yes, they don’t like devolution. Never did, and cannot have the native getting idea’s above their stations. Cons wanted the UK to take it on the chin for their agenda. The issue for the Cons was tipping point where they looked bad rather than public safety.

Twm Llewelyn
7 months ago
Reply to  Jeff

It would have been an immature catfight because of constant attempts at one-upmanship.

Jeff
Jeff
7 months ago
Reply to  Twm Llewelyn

I remember the first pressers. As soon as they said “we are following the science” some of the first words used, I knew it was going to be a bad response from the UK government. We already had the provenance of this government, we knew the calibre of the people involved. Then we had Cheltenham, we had places closing down early before the government stepped in. We had the great Barrington declaration driving insane policies. UK government was missing, it was absent. But to allow much of what needed to happen Wales needed the UK treasury, they had the purse… Read more »

Y Cymro
Y Cymro
7 months ago

Along with political lightweight Liz Truss Boris Johnson was & is the most irresponsible moronic Prime Minister Britain has ever seen. He with his centrist little England one-size-fits-all eat out for £10 Partygate approach cost the lives of tens of thousands who should be alive today. And his actions had dire consequences not only for England but indirectly the devolved executives in Wales , Scotland & Northern Ireland who were trying to keep us informed , vaccinated and safe from the ravages of Covid.

Gareth
Gareth
7 months ago

So here we have the answer to people in the Labour party that think federalism is the way forward. The fear of federalism in the Tory party, lead to keeping of the devolved Govs at arms length, and no doubt lead to more deaths during the pandemic. If this is not a clear indication of how the Tory party view federalism, and how they will not allow it to happen, then Labour need to think again, when it talks of federalism. The Torys along with press and media will not let it happen, at any cost.

hdavies15
hdavies15
7 months ago

So top civil servants feared “potential federalist Trojan horse” but allowed Boris and the other Horsemen of the Apocalypse to ride rampant making it up as they went along. No wonder people were dying – of sickness on the one hand due to inadequate treatment facilities and on the other losing the will to live due to solitude.

Top marks you sons of bitches. Now enjoy your gold plated pensions and choke on them.

Rob
Rob
7 months ago

Quote from BBC website “It is optically wrong, in the first place, for the UK prime minister to hold regular meetings with other DA first ministers, as though the UK were a kind of mini-EU of four nations and we were meeting as a ‘council’ in a federal structure.” My god this government is obsessed with being different to the EU just for the sake of it!! Has it ever occurred to them that if the UK actually became a federal state it might actually keep the Union together? Because not only would it compel the UK government to consider… Read more »

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