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The UK’s Covid response should never have been delegated to Holyrood

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THERE IS some confusion about Holyrood’s role in the pandemic. We have all been placed on a common war footing. Everyone (well, nearly everyone) does their bit.

Emergency powers put legislation in place to cover restrictions to our freedoms and some partial financial compensation for those affected was passed on – entirely funded by Westminster. This is especially the case for businesses and workers when they were unable to work at all.

The UK Government elected to delegate its emergency powers in Scotland to Holyrood. It did not need to; all such decisions could have been made through the Scotland Office for Holyrood to implement through its devolved agencies. It chose, however, to delegate to Holyrood because from the beginning the pandemic was treated as a public health issue, not a national emergency. Public health is devolved, national emergencies are not. It was a key error from the start.

The government has a duty to delegate powers with control. Our freedoms are precious, our economy is delicate. If you trust Holyrood to make these decisions, you need to let them get on with. We have four Chief Medical Officers. We have many more government advisors and devolved healthcare means, at certain times, certain pressures will be felt most in different areas. Policy differentials are to be expected.

Contagious viruses themselves cannot be devolved in the UK. They don’t stop at imaginary borders of internal legal jurisdictions to present their papers, they just keep on travelling. Bear in mind that with this government allowing 33m through Heathrow last year it could not even be kept off the islands at all. People move daily across the UK without ID as is their right under the terms of the various Acts of Union 1707 and 1800 – and rightly so. This is Britain, not the EU.

Given the responsibility through the delegation of the pandemic response as a devolved matter, Holyrood should not be using its budget for ultra vires activities, though it has no issue robbing councils of £370m to spend on its own pet projects. This localised SNP austerity means we must be doubly cautious to not encourage such reckless behaviour.

If Holyrood acts to impose restrictions more severe than the British Government it does so with the trust and, if it is not prevented, then at the behest of the British Government. It is, in fact, acting on behalf of the whole of the United Kingdom’s war effort, in the area delegated to it. It can realistically do nothing more. It could elect to do much less.

There is a risk in this approach. Paradoxically, delegating powers to Holyrood could make matters worse in England and elsewhere, if perverse incentives are in place. To tell Holyrood to look but not touch, to hold back money and quibble who should compensate those disadvantaged by Holyrood’s judgement, is unfair and dishonourable.

In essence, the UK is acting as a biased referee (no pun intended) and a vociferous loss adjuster. This creates a moral hazard by nudging Holyrood not to take the correct action, as far as it sees fit. I can see no mechanism in the law to allow for this and it treats Scottish businesses and workers below the level of how those in England are treated

That’s a Westminster matter, not a Holyrood one. I have always been in favour of the UK alone handling emergency powers because you cannot devolve a national crisis where the enemy could be anywhere. It is akin to the county lines drug dealing fiasco in England, where gangs operate across police boundaries to frustrate investigations.

Operating over and across devolved responsibilities must, in the end, frustrate the efforts of those devolved to, in this case Holyrood.

It is perfectly reasonable even now to conclude the pandemic is best handled by Westminster alone – and that would mean Westminster alone picking up the tab and making judgements. That said, it should be picking up the tab now because Holyrood is only acting as originally requested.

If the Prime Minister no longer trusts those in Holyrood with reserved matters delegated downwards, he should ensure in future they focus solely on devolved ones.

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