Coronavirus is a global pandemic formed of myriad localised outbreaks. In the UK it hit London first and hardest, but is now spreading much faster in some other English regions.
The Prime Minister’s speech last Sunday acknowledged this in talking of “monitoring our progress locally, regionally, and nationally”. In a press conference the following day, he elaborated: “You’ve got to respect local issues, local flare-ups, local problems and part of the solution is responding in a particular part of the country, which we detect with our Covid Alert system, then we will be firefighting, doing whack-a-mole as that issue arises.” And by the end of the week, there seemed to be some consideration within government that different infection speeds in different places might mean relaxation of lockdown at different rates.
But all this mole-whacking and unlocking seems to be entirely centralised. References to local councils in the detailed recovery plan were to an auxiliary role – in supporting care homes, ensuring the distribution of supplies to vulnerable people, in widening pavements, and in playing a part in contact tracing.
In the first phase of the epidemic, when a blanket nationwide lockdown was introduced, it was natural for this to be led from Westminster. But as spats with the Welsh and Scottish government last weekend indicate, the UK government is happy with devolution as long as devolved administrations fall in behind Downing Street’s strictures. So even as a more localised approach is taken, there is no suggestion it will be led from anywhere beyond SW1.
Other European countries are already taking a more devolved approach. As France and Italy have emerged from lockdown, decision-making on local restrictions has been devolved, with boundaries set centrally. In France, the Mayors of individual départements have different rights to open and close schools, beaches and so on, depending on whether their region has been coded as “red” or “green” by the national government (and in consultation with the local “prefects” who represent central government). In the capital city region of Ile de France, for example, the regional administration has required mask-wearing on public transport, and has stipulated that those travelling at rush hour have an authorisation signed by their employer.
In Italy, a deal brokered between ministers and local politicians has allowed each of the country’s 20 regions to set their own course out of lockdown, leading to an accelerated re-opening of bars and restaurants in some regions.
Whether a more responsive localised approach is worth some erosion of national solidarity and clarity can be debated. I think it is, but there are plenty who would disagree – the differing approaches adopted in Scotland and Wales have already been controversial.
However, it does seem blinkered to have a localised system of monitoring, clamping down on outbreaks and easing restrictions without a role for local or regional government. England’s metro mayors have expressed concern about a lack of engagement from government, and have asked for representation, alongside the Mayor of London and Scottish and Welsh leaders, at Cobra meetings, but to date the planning of England’s more locally sensitised strategy to “control the virus” seems to be something done to rather than with local leaders.
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