Scotland will “catch up” with England in reducing the rate of coronavirus infections and be able to similarly ease lockdown measures within weeks, the Scottish secretary has said.
Alister Jack told Westminster’s Scottish affairs committee he believes Scotland is “only a few days behind” England in lowering its R number and hopes the four nations will be able to return to UK-wide messaging in the future.
With Prime Minister Boris Johnson abandoning the “stay at home” slogan earlier this week, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon opted to keep Scotland in tighter lockdown than England, citing a higher rate of infection – known as the R number – and “fragile” progress.
While accepting that the Scottish Government is free to ease restrictions as it sees fit, Jack suggested Scotland could speed up its lifting of restrictions provided the R rate is able to “fall a bit faster”.
The Scottish secretary said: “I would say that within a couple of days Scotland can catch up.
“Certainly in less than a few weeks, Scotland can catch up and we can hopefully all move forward with the same messaging and the same guidelines across the UK.
“Because that’s what keeps people on the straight and narrow – when they can see consistency.”
He expressed regret that the UK Government pushed forward with different messaging and with easing the lockdown measures at a quicker pace that the devolved nations, revealing that he made the case that the whole of the UK “should move at the pace of the slowest [country]”.
Jack added: “We did want the devolved nations to come with us on the change and messaging.
“But they made it clear that they weren’t ready to do that and the Prime Minister – in the conversation he had with the First Ministers – completely accepted that that was their choice to do so.”
‘The decision was taken that we need to get people thinking about going back to work and staying alert was the message that was brought forward.’Alister Jack, Scottish secretary
However, the minister insisted the UK Government is still pursuing a four-nation approach, saying: “We are pooling our expertise, we are coordinating, but we do completely respect the right for the devolved nations to move at a different pace if they need to.
“And that can be nationally, regionally or locally, because as we come out of this we will see spikes in the virus, I suspect, and we will have to – with the alert system – tackle those spikes.”
Repeatedly asked about the decision for England to diverge its messaging from the three devolved nations, Jack acknowledged that the change caused some confusion.
But he added: “The British public are showing that they do have a lot of common sense because they completely understand what it means.”
On the issue of changing lockdown policies, Jack said: “The differences between the UK Government and the Scottish Government are absolutely minuscule.”
Explaining the UK Government’s reasoning for dropping the “hugely successful” stay at home message, he said: “The decision was taken that we need to get people thinking about going back to work and staying alert was the message that was brought forward.
“It was to change the nuance, and the psyche of people, as they face moving into different environments and change does cause confusion.”
Following the committee meeting, SNP shadow Scottish secretary Mhairi Black MP said: “I welcome Alister Jack’s admission that Boris Johnson’s announcement did cause confusion – when the clear message in Scotland remains ‘stay at home to protect the NHS and save lives’.
“Tackling the coronavirus crisis is difficult for all governments, and mistakes will be made – but it is vital that the devolved governments are properly consulted on future changes, and that the UK government makes it crystal clear when its announcements only apply to England.
“An effective four-nation approach, with clear public health messages, requires the UK government to consult devolved governments and show respect where there are differences.
“Too often the UK government has sprung announcements through media briefings and failed to provide clear messages – this has to stop. The UK government must ensure future changes and messages respect all four nations.”