The Welsh and Scottish governments have hit back at the “unfair” extension of the furlough scheme during England’s second lockdown, weeks after the devolved nations called for the measure to support their own tightened restrictions.
The row comes as the Scottish Conservative leader, Douglas Ross, insisted that the UK government “must treat Scotland the same way as England”.
Ross called for No 10 to commit to restarting furlough if a Scottish national lockdown becomes necessary, ahead of a keynote speech to Policy Exchange on Monday, saying the guarantee “has to be made immediately”.
Speaking on the BBC’s Sunday Politics Scotland, the Scottish deputy first minister, John Swinney, said that Westminster had disregarded the issues faced in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland when the devolved nations asked for a similar extension several weeks ago.
He added that the Scottish government was now seeking “urgent clarity” about the circumstances in which furlough payments were going to be available. “Are they only going to be available when England’s got a problem, or are they going to be available at all times in all parts of the UK when we all, at different stages, face difficulties and have to apply restrictions?”
Echoing the Scottish government’s concerns, the Welsh first minister, Mark Drakeford, said that extending furlough midway through his country’s “firebreak” measures was “not fair at all”. Drakeford told BBC Radio Cymru that the UK chancellor, Rishi Sunak, had rejected his requests to boost subsidies for wages when Wales went back into lockdown.
“I got an answer quickly to say that was not possible for a number of technical reasons and so, no. Now when things change in England, they change their minds about the furlough plan. And that’s not fair.”
The latest criticisms reflect ongoing tensions between Westminster and the devolved nations, with Welsh and Scottish first ministers earlier this autumn accusing Boris Johnson of failing to speak to them directly about the possibility of a new national lockdown in England.
Responding to the announcement on Saturday evening, Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said: “A crucial point for us is whether support on the scale announced for English businesses is available for Scottish businesses now, or if we needed to impose further restrictions later – or if it is only available if Scotland has a full lockdown at the same time as a lockdown in England,” she said.
A Treasury spokesperson said that Douglas Ross was “right that this crisis has underlined the importance of the union”.
“Our extension of the furlough scheme until December is just one part of our £200bn support package, which has protected jobs and helped millions of people across the UK continue to provide for their families.
“As we have throughout this crisis, we will continue to listen and respond to people’s concerns as the situation demands.”
Sturgeon went on to ask people not to travel to England, or from England into Scotland unless absolutely essential.
Speaking on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show, the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, said that he would have preferred to see a four-nations approach to a second lockdown.
While Johnson has faced heavy criticism for his delay in introducing a second lockdown, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have tightened their own restrictions in recent weeks.
Wales introduced a two-week firebreak – coinciding with school half-term, and under which shops, pubs and hotels closed and citizens were told to stay at home – from 23 October, to last until 9 November.
Two weeks earlier, Scotland introduced a similar two-week “circuit breaker” around the school half-term. Sturgeon announced a nationwide ban on drinking indoors in pubs, bars and restaurants across Scotland, and a full shutdown of all licensed premises across the central belt, where infection rates are accelerating most rapidly. Schools and early-years childcare remain open and a new five-level system of Covid controls comes into force on Monday.
In Northern Ireland, pubs and restaurants were closed for four weeks starting on 16 October with the exception of takeaways and deliveries. Schools were closed for two weeksfrom 19 October.
Speaking to BBC Scotland, Swinney said that while he could not categorically rule out a national lockdown in the future, the Scottish government had confidence in its own level system, which will see the majority of Scots living under level 3, which bans indoor socialising and drinking in pubs and restaurants along with travel between local authorities.
Swinney also said that, while there are significant differences in levels of coronavirus in Scotland in general compared with England, there are also significant differences within the country, for example between the Highlands and islands and west-central Scotland.