In Depth

Could a ‘federal Britain’ have beaten coronavirus?

A less centralised system might have empowered local governments - or led to chaos

The UK’s over-centralised system of government has hamstrung the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and will hold back recovery, according to supporters of a more federal approach.

“If we want to learn from the pandemic we need to decentralise the state,” says The Telegraph columnist Nick Timothy, former chief of staff to Theresa May. “We need a new and carefully structured constitutional settlement.”

“Haphazard” devolution has left the British state “dysfunctional and our constitution a mess”, Timothy argues. Instead, we should inject German-style “clarity about the division of responsibilities between federal and state governments”.

Empowered local governments might indeed have been more effective, according to The Times. “German experts say the federal system has allowed its states - called lander - to act decisively to control the outbreak,” the newspaper  reports.

Now, each state can tailor its recovery to the local infection rate - an approach that finds favour with Scotland’s leader Nicola Sturgeon [pictured top with Boris Johnson].

“If you look across Europe, the different lander in Germany are doing things at different speeds,” she says. “Different parts of Italy have different restrictions lifted at different times. This is not unusual and it is really important that we recognise that.”

While Johnson has sought a UK-wide approach, English mayors have sided with Sturgeon.

“The response has been very, very nationally driven but the recovery has got to be much more locally driven,” Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham told The Guardian. “Local leaders should have much more control of issues like testing.” 

Liverpool Mayor Steve Rotherham agrees. “Mayors, councils, and the local NHS are all closer to the situation on the ground than Whitehall and we know the needs of our communities better,” he says.

And a newly published report from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change lends weight to their demands.

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“It might be wise to take a more regional approach and to be more targeted,” the institute’s chief economist Ian Mulheirn told The Telegraph. “There are some areas where things are fine and lockdown is jeopardising people's jobs and livelihoods.”

In London, the West Midlands and parts of southwest England, there is “headroom” to lift restrictions, says the report, while infections are still increasing in York, north Somerset and the Isle of Wight.

Yet regional differences have led to complaints in less centralised countries.

Germany’s multispeed approach has led to “some cross-border tensions”, with the most cautious states criticising neighbours which have imposed fewer restrictions, says The Times. 

Chancellor Angela Merkel “has been involved in a long-running dispute with Armin Laschet, the bullish leader of North Rhine-Westphalia, which has opened schools and will soon reopen cinemas”, the paper reports.

Over in Spain, Basque and Catalan separatists striving to preserve the unity of their regions are “unhappy with government plans to phase out the lockdown province-by-province rather than on a larger scale”, says the Financial Times.

In the UK, too, not everyone is convinced by the case for federalism. Some argue the Covid-19 crisis “illustrates the need for more centrally planned command and control systems”, says Computer Weekly.

The magazine cites South Korea as an example of a highly centralised country that has deployed a successful, nationwide response based on technology and scientific advice.

By contrast, the US “federal government can only issue guidelines to the states”, and many state governments “are leaving the response to cities and counties - many much smaller than UK local government units”.

All that devolution helps to explain why a “meaningful collective response is so difficult”.

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