The crumbling of the coordinated four nations approach to the coronavirus could have a lasting impact on businesses, and the Union.
The divergence of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales from the UK Government’s response to the coronavirus is clear, with all four nations on separate paths to the easing of restrictions.
In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, has taken a particularly distinct approach in her route out of the lockdown. So much so that smaller parties north of the border are now calling for the UK’s coronavirus briefings not to be aired in Scotland due to confusion.
The Scottish First Minister’s approach to easing the restrictions creates new complexities for businesses operating across the devolved nations. It also builds on the pressure on the Prime Minister, who placed the Union at the heart of his general election campaign.
The lack of synchronised response not only opens the UK government up to further investigation at the end of the pandemic. It also highlights the stark reality of devolution in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
It is creating confusion for business as evidenced by the different approaches to the pandemic. These differences will become further evident as we see businesses reopening and people returning to work at different times across the UK, which could effectively see the reimposition of a border.
This divergence could result in considerable logistical and cost implications, with businesses operating across UK regions having to ensure that their policies and internal communications can be implemented across all nations. There is also the added complexity of undertaking different risk assessments in each nation. Operational changes which businesses need to make in the short-term may also have a longer-term impact.
The return to work happening at different stages across the UK could cause problems for the devolved regions, particularly as Scotland has indicated a much slower timeline for businesses returning to England, and could see some employees suffering a loss of wages. And with schools going back on different timelines, employees could be faced with further logistical challenges and other complexities will be raised by businesses in England facing questions as to why it’s safe for them to return to work but not their counterparts in Scotland, creating a number of HR questions and added costs to businesses.
There are also political implications to consider. In Scotland, Sturgeon’s cautious approach and perceived prioritisation of public health has resulted in the trust amongst Scots rising. Some 70% of the public trust the First Minister’s handling of the pandemic compared to 54% of the UK Government. This could have wider implications for the future of the Union.
The growing trust in Sturgeon could see the Scottish Government being given credence to lead a country, with full control of the nation. If public confidence continues to rise in Scotland, it could ultimately result in some No voters reconsidering their view on Scotland “going it alone” which was one of the biggest challenges to the SNP in the independence referendum.
The divergence of the four nations has brought the future of a union with four health systems, separate legal frameworks and differing political priorities into sharper focus. This divergence may have provided the nationalists in Scotland with the opportunity to demonstrate that the SNP is more than just a campaign for independence, and can instead be trusted with the health and wealth of the nation. Once the current crisis has subsided, it could even see the SNP back on track for another independence referendum in 2021.
By Sarah Thomson, Senior Consultant