Douglas Ross is arguing “the hard graft of rebuilding Scotland” must start now regardless of the Holyrood election result after it emerged that hundreds of thousands of Scottish workers are still on furlough.
The Scottish Tory leader appealed to Nicola Sturgeon, Anas Sarwar and the other party leaders to set their “divisions aside and focus on Scotland’s recovery” when Holyrood returns next week.
Although Covid deaths and cases have dropped dramatically thanks to the UK’s vaccination programme, he warned them “the economic crisis will only get worse” and it would “require an intensity of focus and all our shoulders to the wheel to tackle it.”
The counting of the votes cast on Thursday will start this morning but the final result will not be known until tomorrow afternoon or evening thanks to Covid safety restrictions.
Ms Sturgeon is hoping to win a majority, which she plans to use to put pressure on Boris Johnson to drop his opposition to a second independence referendum.
If he refuses, she plans to stage her own referendum and challenge the Prime Minister to block it in the courts. She has said she wants to stage the separation vote by the end of 2023, while Scotland is still recovering from the pandemic.
But UK Government figures published on Thursday showed 327,100 Scots were still on furlough at the end of March, including thousands in the crisis-hit hospitality industry.
A Whitehall source said: “This is further evidence of the scale of ongoing UK Government support during the pandemic and demonstrates the scale of the recovery challenge.”
Separate retail industry figures showed a 14.2 per cent surge in shoppers last month compared to March as they returned to the high street as lockdown was eased.
However, footfall was still down by 59 per cent compared to April 2019, before the pandemic. This was a much steeper drop than the 40 per cent recorded across the UK after England's non-essential retailers were permitted to reopen a fortnight earlier.
Mr Ross thanked the Tory activists who had helped his campaign, saying his party “gave it their all” regardless of whether Ms Sturgeon succeeded in winning a majority.
“No matter the result of this election, we all now have a duty to put aside our political differences and fixate on what really matters,” he said.“Political parties have been focussed on asking for your votes. We must now all set divisions aside and focus on Scotland’s recovery.”
In a direct appeal to Ms Sturgeon to shelve her independence plans, he said: “We must begin the hard graft of rebuilding Scotland now.
“We cannot afford to wait or waste time squabbling over the same arguments that have dominated our politics for more than a decade.”
David Lonsdale, director of the Scottish Retail Consortium, said all retail destinations saw some improvement, especially in city centres during the final week of April as restrictions were lifted.
“While these figures are undoubtedly encouraging, there is some way to go before we can say that the industry has fully turned the page on the pandemic,” he said.
“Parts of the economic ecosystem upon which some shops depend have yet to re-open – including some eateries, cinemas, and city centre offices.”