March 14. Every morning, I draw back the curtains in my bedroom and look across the Severn into Wales. About six miles away, as the crow flies, there is a volcanic outcrop called The Breiddens in what was once Montgomeryshire and is now Powys. On the summit of the hill sits Rodney’s Column, a forerunner of Nelson’s monument in Trafalgar Square. It was erected in 1781-82 by the “Gentlemen of Montgomeryshire” to commemorate the victorious battles of Admiral Rodney. The Admiral and I greet each other, and go about our day’s business.
The Welsh Border weaves through the Marches, the outcome not of rational planning but the bloody skirmishes fought in the Middle Ages. If we drive north from our English home, we pass into Wales around Wrexham and then back into England as we approach Chester, once a Roman defensive outpost. Shrewsbury is not only an English county town, but much the largest commercial centre between England and the Mid-Wales coast. In the streets you hear Welsh accents, and from time to time a different language spoken by those who have travelled in for a day’s shopping. The town’s railway station is the main hub for the otherwise fractured Welsh system.
People and cultures are irretrievably mixed. I was therefore astonished to hear in last Wednesday’s government briefing a journalist ask the Minister whether the four nations of the United Kingdom would adopt different policies of social isolation when it came to relaxing the Coronavirus lockdown. This would mean adjacent and interleaved communities pursuing different contact regimes. The prospect seemed so insane that I expected an immediate denial. None came. This was presumably because earlier in the day the First Minister of Wales had been widely reported speculating on the policy he might adopt on this critical question, without any reference to what other devolved administrations might do. He has the power to go his own way, and at present does not seem to be consulting with the English Government. Today the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon has announced that she may introduce her own scheme. There is evidence that staff in the nations are now fighting each other for essential kit. Welsh and Scottish care home managers have complained that their usual suppliers have told them that all their PPE stock was now earmarked for England. Each administration has its own Chief Medical Officer (or did so until the Scottish official was forced to resign because she had twice visited her holiday home in defiance of the lock-down policy she herself had promulgated), and is running its own systems. The NHS scheme for identifying the especially vulnerable that I discussed on April 6 I now discover applies only to England. Were I living a few miles to the west, I would not be affected by it.
Within England, the coronavirus has further exposed the incoherence of devolved power. To the south of my home the newly created Mayor of the West Midlands has authority over regional transport but little else. To the north the Mayor of Manchester actually has power over health provision, though it is too soon to know how well that is working. The adjacent Mayor of Liverpool, on the other hand, is responsible merely for ‘leading the city, building investor confidence, and directing new resources to economic priorities.’ The new Mayor of Leeds, like the West Midlands, just does trains and buses. There is little sense of local ownership of medical services. The Strategic Health Authorities might have pulled an integrated regional policy together, but they were abolished in 2013. It is now recognised that a reason why Germany has been so much better than Britain at developing coronavirus testing systems is that the Länder, whose identities in some cases pre-date Germany itself, had long built up effective networks linking public and private provision in their regions, which they were able to mobilise in ways in which Public Health England has conspicuously failed to do. The ritual that has now been established of daily, London-based briefings merely accentuates the sense that everything that matters in terms of decision-making and public spending is based in the capital.
This crisis is placing all our systems under an unforgiving spotlight, not least the incoherent mix of centralisation and regional initiative that has built up in Britain. This sense of impoverished local ownership and dislocated national devolution had much to do with Brexit, and is now being further exposed by the pandemic.