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5 July 2021

How the Covid-19 unlocking could further divide the UK

Mask-wearing could become a visible symbol that Scotland and England do things differently. 

By Stephen Bush

The government will today announce the end to almost all restrictions in England on 19 July, meaning table service, test-and-trace doohickeys at every establishment and social distancing will be scrapped, along with the legal obligation to wear masks in enclosed spaces, including public transport.  

Is it too early to unlock? Scientists are divided. Some believe that we should wait until everyone has been given the opportunity to have both Covid jabs to minimise the risk to the young posed by the Delta variant and of new, vaccine-resistant variants. Others think that with the elderly and vulnerable vaccinated, and the reality that Covid-19 will be with us forever, now is the time to begin returning to normality.  

The reality in government is that whatever way the science points, the balance of forces within the parliamentary party compels it to go in one direction: towards the end of all restrictions. But the question is: what will the various devolved institutions do? It’s Transport for London that decides whether you wear a mask on the London Underground, and it seems perverse, to put it mildly, that I might be forbidden to have a can of lager on the Tube but be allowed to go maskless, given that the direct health benefits to others of the former are limited, whereas – whether it helps prevent the spread of the common cold, the flu or Covid-19 – the benefits of the latter are significant. Meanwhile it is the Scottish and Welsh governments that will decide what happens with Covid-19 restrictions in their own territories.  

When it comes down to it, the emotionally draining and economically damaging restrictions are going to end for political reasons in all four parts of the United Kingdom, whether those reasons come in the form of restive backbenchers or growing non-observance. But something as generally non-obtrusive as mask-wearing could, I suspect, present a problem that this government really wants to avoid: it could become a visible symbol that Scotland does things differently to England, and in doing so could further boost the SNP’s argument that that difference would be better represented by Scotland going its own way. 

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