It’s been widely reported that England has managed to run very short of flu vaccines this year, and so has authorised use of the surplus swine flu vaccines it bought last year in expectation that the pandemic would be worse than it was. On Saturday there was news that the Scottish Government had spare supplies of the vaccine it would be willing to make available if it were asked. Sunday brought a riposte from the
UK Department of Health that there had been no such offer, and that informal discussions about the amounts available had put DH off asking for help more formally. This has evidently turned into a rather bad-tempered spat being conducted through the media rather than behind the scenes, as more usually happens. That this happens in an area like health, where professional networks are comparatively strong and there’s a high level of respect as a result, suggests that something has gone quite badly wrong, especially as this appears to be a disagreement between officials, not politicians jockeying for electoral advantage.
Two points are worth making about this. First, it’s quite possible for Scotland to make a generous offer of its spare vaccine, and for that still to be only a ‘nominal’ offer, as DH complains. Scotland’s population is about one-tenth the size of England’s; the Scottish Government, by its very nature, will have reserves that are piffling by English standards as a result.
Second, intergovernmental relations in health (see post HERE and the Nuffield Trust paper on Intergovernmental Relations and Health here for more detail) are based on assumptions of co-operation and goodwill, to an even greater degree than relations more generally. When those assumptions come under strain, those involved are in serious difficulties. Clearly the more systematic approach presaged in the Calman Commission report or by the ‘respect’ agenda hasn’t penetrated Richmond House very thoroughly. The way the Scottish Government has been marginalised in debates over the Scotland bill lately, and the increasingly political role of the Scotland Office since 2007, won’t help. As the Scottish Government has been consistently trying to manage relations more formally since 2007, a formal request rather than an informal phone call or email would have been a good move from London’s point of view in these circumstances. DH would well advised to take another look at how they manage those relations if they want to avoid similar problems in future. Conducting a row like this in public is unlikely to do them much good in either the short or the long term.