The UK Government’s treatment of the North of England shows why Welsh devolution is worth every penny

Andy Burnham. Picture by Rwendland (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Ifan Morgan Jones

No one could argue that the Welsh Government has done a perfect job of handling Covid-19.

But you only have to compare what is currently going on in the North of England to see why the ability to govern our own pandemic response is vastly preferable to the alternative.

There’s a danger of course in throwing very different parts of England in with each other under the heading of ‘the North’, but what unites them is the indifference and contempt with which they’re treated by the UK Government.

As one politician told the Manchester Evening News: “The fact we’re so powerless is soul-destroying.”

The need for a figurehead that can articulate a united response means that over the last few weeks, Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham has emerged as the de facto First Minister of the North of England.

And if Manchester was a nation, he would no doubt be labelled a nationalist, such has been his willingness to volubly criticise the UK Government.

Speaking on Question Time on Thursday he said of the UK Government’s handling of Covid-19:  “It does feel increasingly to people like we’re being treated with contempt in the North of England.”

He was particularly angry, he said, that the latest restrictions to be introduced Monday had once again been briefed to the London newspapers before leaders in the North of England were told.

It may seem shocking that UK Ministers wouldn’t even tell those in charge in the North of England their plans, let alone discuss with them in detail what the best response would be.

But given that Mark Drakeford has also been vocal about the lack of any contact with the Prime Minister Boris Johnson, could we really imagine that Wales would have been treated any different?

Luckily for us, of course, as a nation with law-making powers over health, we don’t have to depend on the UK Government to tell us what they’re planning – we can do it ourselves.

 

‘Shambles’

And the difference in outcomes has been stark. In Wales, 95% of close contacts of Covid-positive people are being successfully reached being reached within 24 hours, according to the latest Welsh Government figures.

Meanwhile, the figure for England’s national test and trace system is just 68.6%.

And unlike in Wales, where the Welsh Government have been able to oragnise its own test and trace system, the North of England has so far been almost completely dependent on the UK Government.

One public health director briefed the Guardian: “It’s been a complete shambles. One colleague described it as an intergalactic catastrophe. It is probably the very worst system I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Councils across England are now belatedly taking matters into their own hands and setting up their own tracing schemes, with much greater success.

Local health protection teams have been able to contact 97.1% of contacts, even better than Wales’ figure. But they are only now starting to do it, after weeks of delay where Covid-19 cases have skyrocketed.

It’s no real surprise that, as the polls show, even the people of England prefer the Welsh Government’s handling of the pandemic to that of their own government.

Fractures

The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated beyond doubt why devolution in Wales is so valuable and has to be protected. Politicians in the North of England can’t act and have to wait for UK Ministers with little understanding (or interest?) in their needs to do it for them.

It’s not every day that a pandemic comes along, of course, but it has thrown into sharp relief the dysfunction caused by the UK’s political system.

And that dysfunction is ultimately caused by the desire at Westminster to centralise all power and a sniffy attitude towards any suggestion that those in Wales, Scotland, Manchester and elsewhere might have a better idea how to respond to local circumstances.

As with everything else in British politics, the ideology of Westminster exceptionalism seems to be getting in the way of common sense. Views on devolving power seem to be polarising along left-right lines.

But there is no good reason why that is the case. In the US, for instance, it is the right who are most forthright in insisting on the rights of the regional parliaments, and that makes them no less patriotic (quite the opposite, it seems).

Westminster is stuck in a vicious cycle. It fears that handing out power to the nations and regions of the UK will hasten the break-up of the country without realising that it is its own reluctance to give up power that is driving the break-up.

What is driving the break up is that Wales, Scotland, and now the North of England are simply fed up of a top-down approach which is entirely dismissive of the idea that the people of those countries and regions might have a better idea of what they’re doing.

All Covid-19 has done is pull those tensions to breaking point – or in Scotland’s case, past them.

Meanwhile, it’s likely that we will see parts of the North of England demand much greater autonomy when this is over. And who can blame them?

And anyone who tells you that Wales would be better off shipping all its powers back to Westminster has their own, and not Wales’, best interests at heart.

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