The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, as a sovereign state, came into being in 1801, when Ireland joined England and Scotland in the Kingdom of Great Britain. Of course, events in Ireland changed this title to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. However, ‘Great Britain,’ the ‘UK,’ the ‘British Isles’ and proud local histories in identifying as ‘Welsh’ or ‘Scottish,’ for example, makes understanding our nation and identity rather difficult. Add COVID-19 into the mix, with a generous helping of political point-scoring against Westminster, and the good ship Britannia suddenly becomes much weaker.
Arguably, we have been heading down this road for many years, with Tony Blair promising devolved power in 1997, the close-cut Scottish independence referendum in 2014 and now, the response of each UK nation to COVID-19. From the start, the central government in Westminster ordered everyone to ‘Stay at Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives’, a slogan which invoked a deep idea that fighting the virus was a national, patriotic duty. Not only were individuals, our families and friends at risk, but our beloved NHS was also facing an unprecedented threat. This threat cannot be understated, but was the NHS used here as a political pawn? Did the government manipulate the British people; was the genuine admiration and appreciation for the Health Service used as a political game piece? Regardless, tackling the virus started out as a ‘four-nation’ approach, with our leaders setting aside their differences, in the interest of protecting the greater good.
Yet, as the public health side of the crisis began to improve, combined with the very real danger of a crippled economy, Westminster announced a radical change to their advice; from 10 May, the nation was advised to ‘Stay Alert’, instead of to ‘Stay at Home’. It seems, however, that the ambiguities of Staying Alert caught out even Boris Johnson, who by changing the guidance, was not Alert to the other UK nations remaining on the more cautious pathway. Consequently, the United Kingdom was no longer united in its approach to COVID-19.
This fractured approach has manifested itself in many ways, not least for the already-struggling hospitality industry. In England, establishments re-opened on ‘Super Saturday’, or 4 July, yet the same businesses in Wales opened for indoor business on 3 August. Wales and Scotland were also advised to ‘Stay Local’ during the lockdown, with people restricted to five-mile journeys from home. In England, however, no concrete advice existed for what was a ‘reasonable’ distance from home.
Naturally, there are different factors locally that make it impractical to enforce exactly the same approach nationwide, but this is no consolation for those living in a border town. For example, the Anglo-Welsh border splits in two the town of Saltney, near Chester. Under the initial rules, those on the Welsh side would find many of their local shops closed, whilst on the English side of the High Street, travelling six miles to a relative in one’s bubble would be acceptable! For the sake of the town’s pub, also, a more united approach should have been adopted; The Anchor straddles the border, with the bar sat firmly in the middle!
As each UK nation begins to find itself in, more or less, a similar situation, with many establishments starting to re-open in a COVID-secure manner, this raises the question of what happens to our United Kingdom. Has the Coronavirus revealed the true colours of our political system? Are we really united by institutions like the NHS and the grit to fight the virus, or is this merely a façade that is wheeled out to suit the government? To have a local government, responsible for local affairs, is undoubtedly an asset for our communities and our heritage, but should this be at the expense of our national unity?
By Mark Howard
Image: by Rob Mitchell via Flickr