Watch: Michael Gove defends PM’s visit to Scotland
The prime minister is visiting Scotland on Thursday to promote the Union amid signs of rising support for Scottish independence – but the first minister questioned whether the trip is necessary during the coronavirus pandemic.
He donned PPE on a visit to the Lighthouse Laboratory at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital campus in Glasgow, where coronavirus tests are processed.
Sturgeon said Johnson’s visit to Scotland is “not essential” during the current lockdowns, arguing that politicians have a “duty to lead by example” as the public live under strict restrictions.
Johnson is set to argue that the Union has been integral in administering the COVID-19 vaccine, providing coronavirus testing and giving economic support.
Ahead of the visit, Cabinet Office minister Gove told BBC Radio Scotland: “He’s the prime minister of the United Kingdom, it’s absolutely essential that the prime minister is there to see how on the front line we are progressing in our vaccine delivery and rollout programme.
“It’s critically important that the Scottish government and the UK government are working together to do everything we can to support the rollout and see what we can do to improve it.”
Gove insisted there is “no substitute for a leader better than being there”, when questioned why he did not speak to people remotely.
He said the visit will present “no danger to anyone’s health”, adding “the prime minister will be operating in a COVID-secure way”.
Johnson also received backing from Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer who insisted the prime minister had a right to see what was happening in all parts of the UK.
Starmer told LBC: “I’m with the prime minister on this one. He is the prime minister of the UK.
“It’s important that he travels to see what is going on, on the ground.”
Officials said Westminster has delivered more than one million rapid lateral flow test kits to Scotland so far and is funding testing sites across the country – including seven drive-through centres, 27 walk-in sites and 21 mobile testing units, along with the Lighthouse Lab in Glasgow.
Westminster cash has provided 62% of testing kits in Scotland, No 10 added.
However, concerns have been raised that Johnson may not be the best figure to champion the Union, with polls suggesting support has risen amid a backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic and of Brexit, a campaign the prime minister fronted, while Scotland backed remaining in the EU.
A recent poll for the Sunday Times found that support for independence stood at 49%, with 44% opposed and 7% undecided.
Sturgeon has argued that there would be grounds for a new referendum if her SNP party wins a majority in the Holyrood elections scheduled for May.
SNP deputy leader Keith Brown said the prime minister’s trip is evidence that he is in a “panic” about the prospect of another referendum.
He said: “Clearly, Boris Johnson is rattled. By branding this campaign trip as ‘essential’, this is clearly a prime minister in panic, who knows the Tories are losing the argument on independence.
“Twenty polls in a row have shown that a majority of voters believe Scotland’s future should be in Scotland’s hands – not Boris Johnson’s.”
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