Coronavirus may have had an impact on support for Scottish independence, Nicola Sturgeon said, with the pandemic having “perhaps” made people think “about the benefit of self government”.
The SNP leader insisted that if she could “change things” so that the virus had never happened, and that support for independence was lower, she would “trade any day”.
Ms Sturgeon was clear: “There is no upside to Covid, and I don’t ever want to sound as if I am suggesting as if there is.”
She pledged that if re-elected to power in May’s Scottish Parliament elections “the first act of a re-elected SNP government, if there is a re-elected SNP government, will be to continue to take the country as safely as we can through Covid”.
But with support for independence “higher than it has been at any time ever”, Ms Sturgeon said coronavirus may have seen people reflect on the political situation.
The First Minister flatly rejected the arguments made by some of her opponents that the success of Scotland’s vaccination programme was down to being part of the UK.
“I find that a facile and actually kind of insulting argument,” she told the PA news agency.
“The vaccination rollout is a tribute to the brilliance of our scientists and the utter magnificence of the NHS operation to get it into people’s arms.
“Yes we procure on a UK basis, and the UK has successfully procured, but the idea that that would have been different if either the UK had still be in the EU or Scotland had been independent, just doesn’t really bear any scrutiny.”
Asked if the pandemic may have affected support for independence, Ms Sturgeon said: “I don’t know the answer to that question, what I know is support for independence has grown over the past year, and is at a higher level now, and a higher, apparently sustainable level, than it’s been ever before.
“What the reasons for that are, I guess is open to debate. I think Brexit still has a big part to play.”
She continued: “If I could change things so we never had had Covid and that meant support for independence wasn’t quite as high as it was, I would trade any day.
“But people have, at a time of crisis, looked to their own government here in Scotland to lead, and they won’t have agreed with every decision we have taken at times, but at a time of crisis, I think what we have seen is that natural inclination of people to look to their own democratically elected government.
“And perhaps that has made people think about the benefit of self government, and it may well be that that is having some kind of impact in the polls.”
The SNP leader said that “independence has never enjoyed the kind of reasonably long term, sustained, majority support it has in recent times”.
And while she said there would be “fluctuations in that, I am sure” she added that the “baseline appears to be higher than it has been at any time ever”.
Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross accused the First Minister of using the pandemic as a “recruiting tool”.
He added: “It’s even more galling when the truth is that she didn’t handle this pandemic any better than others. The SNP have built a false reputation based on spin.
“The fact is that the SNP Government came into this pandemic unprepared. There wasn’t enough PPE for frontline staff, testing and tracing wasn’t done well enough and, worst of all, many of our most vulnerable people were sent to Scotland’s care homes after testing positive for Covid-19.
“It’s not a record anyone should be proud of – and it’s shameful to campaign for another divisive independence referendum on its coattails.”
Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said: “I’m afraid Nicola Sturgeon has a blind spot when it comes to the constitution.
“Holding a referendum during the recovery would be irresponsible.
“I want us to focus on what unites us as a country, not what divides us.
“This election and the next parliament must be about our national recovery, not going back to the old arguments.”
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