John Swinney has indicated that the Scottish Government will press ahead with plans for an independence referendum now that the country is in a “much improved situation” on Covid.
It comes after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon confirmed that preparations to hold a vote on the country’s future are under way.
The SNP leader explained she intends to set out a legislative timetable for a referendum in the “coming weeks”, as she stated it is her intention to hold a vote before the end of 2023.
Speaking on the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland programme on Monday, deputy first minister Swinney said that it was a “sensible decision” to pause all preparations in March 2020 at the start of the pandemic for holding an independence referendum.
But, he pointed to the improved picture across the country with the virus as an indication that preparations can once again be set in motion.
“What we’ve said all along is that when we get out of the intensity of Covid, we will start the preparations for the independence referendum and that’s exactly what the Government has done,” said Swinney.
“We took the sensible decision back in March 2020 to pause all preparations for an independence referendum, despite having a mandate to do so.
“And we’ve watched carefully the passage of the virus and we now find ourselves in a position… that we are in a much, much improved situation.
“We have very modest measures left in place to protect against Covid, they are sensible and proportionate measures.”
Swinney acknowledged the disruption caused by the pandemic to businesses across Scotland, but said that there is recovery being seen in “almost all” sectors of the economy.
He told the BBC: “Undoubtedly, there has been enormous disruption to the economy and the society during the course of Covid.
“But, when we look at the data on the progress of the Scottish economy – last week we saw unemployment data which saw a significant fall in unemployment and unemployment’s at a historically low level within Scotland – we are seeing recovery in almost all sectors of the economy.
“And in many sectors, back to a position which is actually equal to or in some cases stronger than we were in pre-pandemic.
“So, there is a recovery underway and what we are trying to do as a government is to ensure that we take the sensible preventive steps to protect against any spread of the virus whilst we focus on the recovery from Covid.”
Swinney explained that time is required in order to allow the public to understand the legislation which would be required for an independence referendum to take place.
He said: “The First Minister has made clear that she will set out the timetable for the preparations for a referendum that will take place before the end of 2023.
“Obviously, there’s a variety of protocols that we have to follow enabling the passage of legislation to take place in sufficient time for it to be understood by the public before a campaign period starts.”
Scottish Conservative constitution spokesman Donald Cameron criticised Swinney over his comments.
“The Scottish people will be appalled at John Swinney’s indefensible admission that the SNP Government have already begun planning for another divisive independence referendum,” he said.
“It beggars belief that the SNP consider this appropriate when the country is still subject to their Covid restrictions and all the focus should be on rebuilding our public services and economy in the wake of the pandemic.
“Scotland’s NHS is on its knees amid a staffing crisis and the worst A&E waiting times ever recorded, while the education secretary refuses to guarantee that exams will even go ahead this spring.
“Yet against this backdrop, the SNP think it’s time to obsess over the constitution. That shows how warped and self-serving their priorities are.”
Responding to the remarks by John Swinney, chief executive of Scotland in Union, Pamela Nash, said that it is “astonishing” that the SNP wants to return to the “arguments of the past”.
“This is a gross insult to the NHS staff struggling with the impact of Covid, the businesses that have been decimated, and the families still mourning the loss of loved ones,” she said.
“After all we have been through together, it’s astonishing that the SNP wants to return to arguments of the past and divide the people of Scotland.
“The Government’s entire focus should be on the many years of recovery ahead, bringing people together and investing in our public services so that we can build a successful future as part of the UK.”