Nicola Sturgeon: Independence 'essential' and 'not a distraction' in Scotland's recovery
Nicola Sturgeon has said independence is "essential" to Scotland's recovery from the pandemic and "not a distraction".
The SNP leader used her campaign conference speech to talk about COVID-19, her party's policy plans and to criticise Westminster for launching a "power grab" on the Scottish Parliament.
She emphasised her belief that the country's future lies outside of the United Kingdom, insisting independence was crucial in a recovery based on the values that, she says, most people in Scotland subscribe to.
Sturgeon also set out plans, if elected, to increase the Scottish Child Payment from £10 per week for each eligible child to £20 per week. She said this would help "end the scandal of child poverty".
She praised the NHS for its delivery of the coronavirus vaccination programme and announced plans to establish a minimum of one new fast track cancer diagnostic centre in every health board area.
A mandate for a second independence referendum was at the heart of her address as she said: "There is a question all of us in Scotland need to ask ourselves.
"Who is best placed to decide and shape the kind of country we want to be after the pandemic – the people of Scotland and governments, of whatever party, elected by us; or Westminster governments and politicians like Boris Johnson?
"I believe Scotland’s recovery should be in Scotland’s hands. Independence is not a distraction from recovery.
"It is essential to secure a recovery that is made here in Scotland and based on the values the majority of us subscribe to.
"In an independent Scotland we will have the powers and tools we need to build the country so many of us want to see.
"Never again will it be possible for a Westminster government to take Scotland in the wrong direction. A vote for the SNP in this election is a vote to re-elect me and the SNP Government to continue to lead Scotland safely through the pandemic.
"But it is also a vote for your right – when the crisis is over – to choose independence. And we can help build the case for independence every day in how we use the powers we already have."
Critics believe the SNP are focusing too much on the constitution instead of other policy issues, including the government's pandemic response and its failure to close the poverty-related attainment gap in education.
Pamela Nash, chief executive of Scotland in Union, a pro-UK campaign group, said: "Nicola Sturgeon isn’t interested in the priorities of the Scottish people.
"It’s clear that she wants to use every single vote for the SNP as an excuse to divide Scotland.
"She claimed education was her defining mission, but the reality is it’s just an afterthought to her.
"We are stronger together as part of the UK and all politicians have a duty to focus on bringing people together as we recover from the pandemic."
Anas Sarwar, leader of Scottish Labour, hit out at the SNP's record on tackling poverty and said Sturgeon's stance on independence was "unfortunate".
He said: "Nicola Sturgeon has presided over a quarter of our children living in poverty and in her own constituency almost half of children live in poverty. That is a record of shame and, frankly, Scotland deserves better.
"It’s disappointing that the First Minister’s focus on national recovery is compromised by her continued blind-spot on the constitution.
"At a time when we should be focussing on what unites us, not what divides us, it is unfortunate that the First Minister is again putting her personal interest before the national interest. Scotland deserves better."
Alistair Carmichael MP, Scottish Lib-Dems campaign chair, added: "Every single civil servant who is working on an independence bill is one who could be working on the recovery from the pandemic so for the First Minister to claim that 'independence is not a distraction' is clearly baloney.
"While Willie Rennie sets out the Scottish Liberal Democrats' plans for education and mental health, the First Minister will spend it fighting a running battle with her former political mentor."