Nicola Sturgeon: The realities of COVID will guide independence referendum timetable
Nicola Sturgeon has said holding an independence referendum would not be "appropriate" if Scotland was still grappling with a global pandemic by the middle of the next parliament.
The SNP leader's preference remains for the independence question to be put to voters within the first half of the new session – a period of time which will last until the end of 2023.
However, she acknowledged the country is "still in the teeth of an acute phase of a pandemic" and if that were to continue, then the realities of COVID-19 would guide the timescale.
Sturgeon said: "The starting point for me in terms of timing is after we’re out the pandemic. People say: 'What does that mean?' That will be a question of judgement as we go through this pandemic.
"So if we, by the middle of the parliament, were still grappling with – in a way similar to now – a global pandemic, then I don’t think it would be appropriate to have a referendum at that point.
"But if we are out of the crisis, then the reason I’ve said the first half of the parliament, which you’re right is a period that lasts until the end of 2023, is because I do think as we start in earnest to recover the issue of where decisions are taken, where power lies, is material to the kind of recovery we have."
The Scottish Government has already published a draft bill for a second referendum, which says the date of a referendum poll should be decided on factors including the state of the pandemic and the requirements for a proper period of campaigning.
It also says the final decision on a date is for the next Scottish Parliament to take.
At the end of last month, Sturgeon used a campaign speech to say that independence was "essential" to Scotland's recovery from the pandemic and "not a distraction".
When it was put to the SNP leader that those comments suggests a preference for an early referendum, Sturgeon reiterated her point of view that the first half of the parliament is favoured.
She said: "My preference would be to have the referendum and offer the choice to the people of Scotland within the first half of the parliament, which is a period that runs... until the end of 2023.
"I think in terms of whether that can definitely happen and if so, where within that timespan a referendum would actually happen, depends on the situation with COVID.
"I do believe independence and the decision making that then brings to the Scottish Parliament is important to ensuring we get the right kind of recovery, but right now we are still in the teeth of an acute phase of a pandemic.
"People are still living under very serious restrictions and as long as that continues then, not least because people wouldn't be able to campaign properly... so for a whole host of reasons we need to get out of the crisis of COVID and then put that choice to the people of Scotland.
"So my preference is in within first half of the parliament, but of course the demands and realities of COVID have to be what guides that decision."
However, Sturgeon ruled out "any kind of arrangement" with Alex Salmond or the pro-independence Alba Party.
She said: "I don’t get to decide what other parties and other MSPs vote for and vote against, but I have no plans, no intention of having any kind of arrangement with Alex Salmond."
Earlier this week, ex-SNP leader Salmond, who hosts The Alex Salmond Show on RT, a Russian state-controlled TV network, was criticised after he refused to say whether he believes Russia was responsible for the Salisbury poisoning.
The UK Government and a host of other countries blamed Russia for the 2018 nerve agent attack on Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military officer and double agent for the British intelligence agencies, and his daughter, Yulia Skripal.
While both survived the attempt, a British woman, Dawn Sturgess, later came into contact with the poison and died.
Asked about the Salisbury poisoning, Sturgeon said: "Obviously at the time of that I was privy to some of the intelligence information and briefing. There is no doubt in my mind Russia was behind the poisoning."
She continued: "All right-minded people who value and want to stand up for decent values across the world should say that.
"I can’t speculate on why Alex or anybody else decides to say, or not say, certain things.
"I think those questions have to be put to them. But I guess one of the consequences of Alex now leading a different party to the one I am in is that I don’t have to explain what he means when he says or doesn’t say things any longer."