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Has devolution led to different outcomes during the Covid-19 crisis?

The experience of Covid-19 has varied across the devolved nations of the UK, testing various aspects of each administration’s ability to work alongside central government. Why the outcomes vary is unclear: understanding this may hold important lessons for future challenges.

Opinion polls in Scotland suggest that many people think that the Scottish government has dealt with the pandemic more effectively than the UK government (BBC News, 2020). It is unclear whether this perception has been driven by a marked difference in outcomes between the devolved nations – particularly Scotland – during this crisis. It is important to identify what policy decisions might explain this, and if there are other factors too that might offer a fuller explanation.

Devolution during the pandemic: a recap

Covid-19 represents the most serious health and economic crisis since devolution in 1999. Unlike during the global financial crisis of 2007-09, the devolved administrations have been on the frontline in responding to the pandemic.

In some policy areas – such as defence policy and monetary policy – devolution plays no role. But health is an area where devolved governments have virtually complete authority to act independently of Westminster. Not only is health policy devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but many of the mechanisms through which policy-makers have attempted to constrain the spread of the virus – restrictions on social gatherings, education, transport and businesses – are also the responsibility of lawmakers in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.

The Scottish government has used these powers, announcing its own policies, which appear, at first glance, to differ from the UK government’s approach. For example, the Scottish government published a ‘Route-Map’ in May 2020, separate from the UK’s ‘Plan to Rebuild’. This was then followed by its own guidance for businesses during lockdown, and the introduction of a Scottish Strategic Framework for classifying degrees of local restrictions – with five levels as opposed to the three-phased approach in England.

There have also been variations in the timing of restrictions. For example, the Scottish government was slower in lifting some of the constraints on certain types of business during the summer than other parts of the UK. There have also been local lockdowns and subtle differences in messaging, particularly as the second (and third) waves of Covid-19 took hold.

It is not obvious, however, to what extent these differences have been in substance or style (or both). For example, it is unclear from a public health perspective why in classifying local restrictions Scotland needs ‘levels’, England ‘tiers’ and Wales ‘traffic lights’. In the same vein, the Scottish government’s slogan of ‘stay safe, protect others, save lives’ is similar but not identical to the UK government’s original request to ‘stay alert, control the virus, save lives’.

The UK and Scotland during the pandemic

To look for any difference in outcomes across the nations of the UK, it is useful to evaluate key data tracking public health and economic performance. It is, of course, not possible to make definitive conclusions at this stage. In the knowledge that analysis will improve with time, what follows is a summary of some headline statistics, set out with the aim of trying to understand a fast-moving crisis.

Public health

To date, there have been over 100,000 deaths in England within 28 days of a positive Covid-19 test, over 6,500 in Scotland, over 5,000 in Wales and almost 2,000 in Northern Ireland.

Figure 1 shows the evolution of the Covid-19 case rate (per million people) in each UK nation.

Figure 1: Positive Covid cases, by nation of the UK

Source: UK Government

At first glance, it is clear how similar the experience across the UK nations was for much of 2020 – albeit with different spikes in cases at different times. Further, the pre- and post-Christmas period included more variation, particularly as new variants of the virus spread quickly in parts of England and Wales.

A similar picture emerges from statistics on the cumulative level of deaths across the UK nations.

Data on deaths from Covid-19 are available using various methods. One measure is deaths within 28 days of a positive test, which are, of course, affected by testing rates. Another is to measure instances where a death certificate mentions Covid-19 as one of the causes of fatality. Both are presented for comparison.

Figure 2a plots cumulative deaths (per million people) in each nation based on the information contained in death certificates, and Figure 2b presents cumulative deaths (per million people) within 28 days of a positive test.

In both cases we can see some difference, with lower death rates in the early part of the crisis in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Some of this variation is likely to stem from the initial geographical spread of the virus and its subsequent variants later on in the year. Covid-19 was detected in England approximately a month ahead of the other devolved administrations, with the first positive case in England in January compared with March in Scotland. Likewise, information on the rapid spread of new variants in England and Wales in late 2020 allowed authorities in the rest of the UK to respond with tighter restrictions before infections had started to rise sharply.

Figure 2a: Cumulative death rate, by nation of the UK (by certification)

Figure 2b: Cumulative death rate, by nation of the UK (within 28 days of a positive test)

Source: UK Government

The main source of light on the horizon comes from the rollout of the vaccination programme. While the UK government has been responsible for procuring different vaccines, the devolved administrations have taken the lead in organising delivery. Figure 3 plots the latest vaccination data across the four nations, based on delivery of the first dose.

Figure 3: Share of the population receiving the 1st dose of the Covid vaccine, by nation of the UK

Source: UK Government

As of early 2021, England has the highest share of its population having received a first dose. Wales and Scotland were the slowest, but Wales picked up the pace towards the end of January.

Scotland and Northern Ireland have achieved similar levels of delivery, both below English and Welsh levels. This has led some to criticise the Scottish government’s response to the vaccine programme (The Guardian, 2021). In reply, the Scottish government argued that its strategy was ‘initially concentrated on making sure there was a depth of uptake in the clinically most vulnerable groups such as elderly care home residents’, and that this resulted in a slower rollout in Scotland (BBC News, 2021).

The economy

The typical way to compare short-term economic performance between different regions is to look at economic activity and the labour market.

Towards the beginning of the crisis, the Scottish government started publishing a monthly gross domestic product (GDP) series. While experimental, it allows for tracking activity at the same level as official estimates for the UK as a whole.

The figures below plot various series:

  • GDP. Two trends are visible: first, the Scottish economy has grown more slowly since 2010 than the UK as a whole; and second, both Scotland and the wider UK have experienced a similar hit from the pandemic.
  • Labour market. Again, two trends are visible: first, furlough and other labour market support schemes have resulted in Labour Force Survey measures of employment and unemployment remaining ‘artificially’ stable (employment remaining level despite sharp increases in unemployment-related benefit claims and falls in hours worked); and second, there are no noticeable differences between Scotland and the UK as a whole.

Figure 4: Comparing Scotland and the UK - GDP

Source: Scottish Government & ONS

Figure 5: Comparing Scotland and the UK - Unemployment rate (%)

Source: Scottish Government & ONS

Figure 6: Comparing Scotland and the UK - Employment rate (%)

Source: Scottish Government & ONS

Some care has to be taken when reading too much into these metrics at this stage. This is because there are inherent challenges with measurement as well as possible impacts of support measures on the overall numbers.

A more useful indicator of economic activity (including the labour market) – and one used by the Scottish Fiscal Commission in its recent forecast report – may be to look at new data on employee registrations for pay-as-you-earn (PAYE) tax (see Figure 7). These data show greater variation across the UK nations, with Scotland experiencing a bigger drop in payroll employment.

Figure 7:  Number of PAYE employees, by nation of the UK

Source: ONS, HMRC

Consistent with the trend for PAYE employees, HMRC data also reveals a sharper decline in the number of ‘jobs on furlough’ in Scotland compared with the rest of the UK (Figure 8). Also highlighted is the slower increase in the number of furloughed jobs in Scotland after November 2020.

Figure 8:  Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, by nation of the UK

Source: HMRC

What might explain these trends?

The limited variation in public health and economic outcomes might seem surprising. If the devolved nations have been at the forefront of many aspects of the response to Covid-19, why have there not been greater variations? There are several possible explanations.

First, a pandemic does not respect political boundaries. England’s infection and death rate spiked in December as the new variant of the disease was first detected. This provided a warning signal for the rest of the UK, enabling the devolved administrations to respond.

Second, the tools any government can use in response to a global pandemic are limited in number. While there have been variations between countries, the scope for genuine policy differentiation within a country is limited.

Third, although there have been criticisms of the frameworks in place for intergovernmental discussions at a political level in the recent past, one feature of the UK policy system is the close working relationship that exists across public servants (McEwen et al, 2020). These relationships include the sharing of scientific advice and modelling. This suggests that the approach taken by those working within departments may in fact be closer that that espoused by politicians and reported by the media.

Finally, and most importantly, while the devolved nations might have legislative competence in key areas of health, public order and education, their financial powers are limited. Even after recent changes to which spending decisions are overseen by Welsh and Scottish policy-makers, the governments in Edinburgh, Wales and Belfast depend heavily on decisions in Westminster that influence devolved budgets (although, Scottish and Welsh MPs do at least vote on these decisions).

The Scottish government cannot, for example, borrow to support additional resource spending. This would preclude it implementing significant additional financial support – relative to that offered elsewhere in the UK - for businesses and individuals should it choose to undertake a more expansive lockdown.

What explains differences in public perceptions?

Despite practical policy limitations, there remains a clear distinction in perceptions about the handling of the crisis. Survey responses show that – at least in Scotland – respondents give a higher score to the Scottish government for its handling of the crisis compared with the UK government. What might explain this?

Part of this perception is likely to be driven by political dynamics, including public opinion on the different parties in power. Previous judgements about the respective leaders and governments are also likely to be a factor. For example, the annual Social Attitudes Survey for Scotland consistently shows relatively high levels of trust in the Scottish government.

In time, other factors may also become clear. There is, for example, a claim that communication has been stronger by the Scottish government (and in particular from the First Minister), including in explaining the nature of changing advice.

Perceptions of government in handling the crisis should not be dismissed as being insignificant. Confidence in government can lead to more effective policy over the long term, even if the wordings of policies or rules are almost identical. Much of the Covid-19 response has relied on public understanding of (and adherence to) lockdown rules. This cooperation will also be needed as the economy and society are gradually re-opened.

Where can I find out more?

Who are experts on this question?

  • Graeme Roy, Director of the Fraser of Allander Institute, University of Strathclyde
  • Stuart McIntyre, Head of Research, Fraser of Allander Institute, University of Strathclyde
  • Nicola McEwen, Professor of Constitutional Politics, University of Edinburgh
  • David Bell, Professor of Economics, University of Stirling

Photo from Wikimedia Creative Commons
Editors’ note: this article was amended on Friday 12 February to include a chart for cumulative deaths per million (by certificate).
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