National emergencies require national responses

With the aviation industry on its knees, Boris Johnson is under pressure to embrace airport testing.

Screening arrivals is thought more effective than the current policy: a blanket requirement to self-quarantine for 14 days. Airline and tourism chiefs warn this is crippling their sectors and putting thousands of jobs at risk.

The Scottish Conservatives want the Scottish Government, which holds the relevant powers, to back airport screening north of the Border. But you can be sure that, should the Prime Minister relent and roll out an airport swabbing programme, Nicola Sturgeon will announce it is wrong for Scotland and refuse to follow suit. A week or so later, she will follow the Prime Minister’s lead while demanding credit for her caution.

Whether on air bridges or reopening pubs or ‘Stay Alert’ messaging, that has been Sturgeon’s modus operandi. As UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps pointed out on Friday, the different travel restriction regimes are ‘confusing’ for tourists, adding that it didn’t ‘make the overall message any clearer’ when the Scottish Government ‘jumped the gun’ and added Greece to its quarantine list.

Boris Johnson opted to give Holyrood further emergency powers at the outset of the pandemic, rather than pursue a unified national strategy. While the four-nations approach appeared sensible at first, it was only as good as the faith of those running it, and in the case of Sturgeon, her divisive, tribal instincts got the better of her soon enough.

The leeway that devolution granted the SNP to take different choices in Scotland appears to have become a strategy to take different choices for the sake of it, and for political purposes.

Shunting elderly people into care homes, fully aware of the potential consequences, may be the most morally indefensible aspect of her government’s response to Covid-19, but the refusal to rule out quarantining English people coming to Scotland remains the primary political outrage.

At a time when national unity was called for, when it was essential that no one group of people be stigmatised, Sturgeon failed to rise above partisanship and pandering.

The lack of co-ordination, the confusion, the harm to the economy, and the opportunism of political pot-stirrers make the case for a better way of handling this and future emergency scenarios.

The UK Parliament should consider legislating for a new form of co-ordination of government in times like these. This would involve Parliament and UK ministers taking temporary control of relevant devolved competencies to ensure a coherent and effective response to a national emergency. National emergencies might include epidemics and pandemics; terrorism and war; catastrophic weather events and major industrial disputes; disruption to transport and to food, fuel and medicine supply chains.

In the current fight against Covid-19, it could mean ministers setting policy on areas such as airport screening and testing in general; air bridges and internal border crossings; the scope and timing of lockdown measures; infection control protocols; and statistics and data. Ministers may also require the power to issue regulations, directions and guidance to NHS Scotland, NHS Wales and Health and Social Care Northern Ireland.

The overriding objective would be to remove all barriers to swift and straightforward management of coronavirus and similar outbreaks. It would not necessitate a one-size-fits-all approach; instead, UK ministers would be able to take targeted action within a single framework. No more political games, no more playing Scotland and England off against one another. A healthy nation, rather than healthy polling numbers for one party or another, would be the organising principle.

This would not be an encroachment on devolved powers, but rather a recognition that some situations simply require a single government to be in charge. Airport testing, for example, will struggle to operate effectively if only some UK airports are using it. Working together, within the same strategy, would make all the difference.

There are already structures that nominally allow ministers from the four governments to co-operate. The Joint Ministerial Committee seldom meets but during the pandemic devolved ministers have attended Cobra (the Civil Contingencies Committee) meetings and Ministerial Implementation Groups, though the Institute for Government notes that both have since fallen by the wayside.

National emergency legislation should be accompanied by the creation of a National Emergency Committee, chaired by the Prime Minister. Unlike Cobra, it would meet regularly in non-emergency times to plan, prepare, advise, share information, organise training drills and establish relationships for future incidents. Those attending would include ministers from the devolved governments, as well as representatives from the police, fire and health services.

When an emergency situation did arise, the committee would co-ordinate the implementation of government decisions in each nation. It would offer the devolved administrations the opportunity to shape strategy and argue for changes. Ultimately, the Prime Minister would decide but the committee could help ensure the exercise of temporarily reserved powers was done with an eye to consensus and compromise.

The temporary nature of reservation would be written into law, with a statutory requirement for Parliament to review the situation at regular intervals. UK ministers would be forbidden from using a crisis as a pretext to legislate or issue directives in areas not relevant to the emergency at hand.

National emergencies demand a national response, and Covid-19 more than qualifies. Four governments pursuing four different strategies, and with ill-motivated actors determined to use this moment for divisiveness, clearly does not work. The question of airport testing amply demonstrates how a one-nation approach could function, giving airlines and the tourism industry the clarity and confidence they need to get through what is, for them, an existential crisis.

The next time we face an emergency like this, we should face it as one nation. Our response will be all the better for it.


On Friday night, Extinction Rebellion blocked access to printing presses in Motherwell, Broxbourne and Knowsley. They targeted titles, including the Daily Mail, whom they accuse of failing to report on climate change. Eighty people were arrested, but not before severe disruption to the supply of millions of newspapers. 

Predictable excuses for their actions have been heard from predictable quarters. They obstructed the delivery of Right-leaning newspapers and to a certain caste of Left-wing mind that will always be justified. Of course, were a Right-wing rabble to impede the Guardian’s printers over its Brexit coverage or publication of Wikileaks, the apologists’ tune would hit a different note. 

While it is encouraging to hear Boris Johnson call the conduct of this eco-fundamentalist sect ‘unacceptable’, it is not enough. Press freedom is a bedrock liberal principle and ministers cannot allow it to become contingent on the whims of undisguised communists and undeodorised druids.


Tony Abbott’s appointment as a trade envoy has proved controversial because of his past statements on gay marriage and women’s roles, but his personal views are irrelevant to the job. Labour says he’s unsuitable to represent the UK on the world stage. Remind me: who did Labour try to make UK prime minister nine months ago? 

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Image by Klaus Hausmann from Pixabay.

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