Opinion: Lucy Cowie
This week in the UK: Johnson v Sturgeon, Johnson v Union, Sturgeon v Salmond - 26th February 2021
(Cover Image: Barbara Carr from Wikimedia Commons)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson released his roadmap for easing lockdown at the beginning of the week, which has of course led everyone to bookmark June 21st as the date for the re-opening of nightclubs.
It is notable that the easing of restrictions from April is spread out, taking five weeks between each change. Johnson described the process of his “cautious but irreversible” plan on Monday, and the UK’s Covid alert level was dropped from 5 to 4 this week as a result of easing pressure on the NHS.
The roadmap doesn’t mention the prospect of holidays or how long social distancing measures will last, however this week it has been suggested that measures such as masks could be in place again this winter.
The Government’s roadmap suggests that 66% of the population is expected to take up a vaccine, hence the requirement for continuing measures to address Covid in the long term.
Chris Whitty did suggest at Monday’s briefing that the UK is entering a stage where policy is about a balance of harms, between continuing restrictions and opening up too quickly.
There had been a number of Tory MPs who were calling for a faster lifting of restrictions and restarting of the economy, but Johnson’s Government has sought to emphasise that their focus is preventing a fourth lockdown.
Labour hasn’t criticised the plan very much, except for leader Keir Starmer at PMQs asking Johnson to reject these comments made within the Tory party about easing restrictions too slowly.
Scotland’s roadmap is slightly different, with restrictions easing every three weeks but still at a slower pace than the rest of the UK. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon emphasised the need to be cautious in easing restrictions, particularly as some school children have already returned to classrooms on Monday for the first time since December.
How this will impact Covid rates will be monitored closely; the Scottish Government repeatedly emphasised this week that it will make changes according to the available data. The First Minister’s plan only runs until the end of April, but she stressed that presenting a four-month plan would not be “on the basis of any object evidence.”
Her deliberately cautious approach will see Scotland’s lockdown eased at the end of April; so, there is still hope for pubs before the end of term.
In other UK politics news, Matt Hancock claimed that “we never had a national shortage” of PPE, causing outrage amongst many in the health service and Westminster alike. This follows a high court ruling that the Health secretary acted unlawfully by failing to publish multibillion-pound Covid contracts.
End of the Union (Unit)
Having only held the post for a couple of weeks, former Vote Leave figure Oliver Lewis left his role as head of the Union Unit, citing that his position was made ‘untenable’ by others in Downing Street. This sparked discussions on political dynamics within Johnson’s administration and questions over who is calling the shots.
Johnson has set up a new Cabinet Committee with himself at the helm alongside Lord Frost, former chief Brexit negotiator. It initially looked as though the Union Unit was being scrapped altogether, but this new group will no doubt be important this year, with the upcoming Scottish elections and calls for IndyRef 2.
Continuing Brexit issues have also made the UK Government’s relationship with Northern Ireland more tense, alongside support for independence in Wales beginning to slowly but surely climb.
Sturgeon v Salmond
This has been the other big story this week after the unveiling of both the UK and Scottish Government’s roadmaps for easing lockdown. Salmond versus Sturgeon reflects a much bigger issue than a fight between two former friends, with the two most well-known political characters in Scotland engaged in a political and legal battle.
The story initially was about former First Minister Alex Salmond being accused of sexual harassment, an investigation by the Scottish Government which was mishandled, and Sturgeon being accused of misleading parliament over the inquiry.
Salmond was found not guilty in court last year, at which point he suggested there was more to the trial than he could say but stated that the allegations against him had been invented for “political purpose”.
Now, there is a committee investigating the Scottish Government for the mishandling of the Salmond inquiry, as the former First Minister accused Sturgeon of being part of a conspiracy to have him imprisoned.
It’s been a long and complicated saga, but this will likely remain a major story in the coming weeks. It has the potential to be very influential outside of Scotland, as the SNP is the third biggest party in Westminster and is likely to win the upcoming Scottish elections.
As an SNP majority in the Scottish parliament will likely be taken as a mandate for a second Independence referendum, any wrongdoing on Sturgeon’s part could seriously impact the future of the UK. If Sturgeon is found to have broken the ministerial code, she will have to resign.
The First Minister is currently trusted by the Scottish public at a high level due to her handling of Coronavirus - a November Ipsos Mori poll showed 74% of the population think she has handled the pandemic well, compared with 19% for Johnson.
The Salmond versus Sturgeon case will no doubt continue to be a major story and does have the potential to be damaging for Sturgeon even with significant public popularity.
Next week’s budget is expected to form the main headlines and focus for the UK Government in the coming weeks, especially as the Prime Minister has suggested that financial support such as the furlough scheme will be extended.