Boris Johnson's handling of the coronavirus pandemic shows Scotland must break away from the UK to "rebuild" after the crisis ends, Nicola Sturgeon has argued amid growing criticism of her Covid record.
The First Minister used her keynote speech to the SNP's annual conference to state a fairer country could be created from the devastation wrought by the pandemic, rather than going back to the pre-virus norm.
But she argued this required Scotland to separate from the UK and warned the alternative was being "dragged down" by "Boris Johnson and his band of Brexiteers."
Although she admitted to mistakes during the pandemic, Ms Sturgeon said she doubted many Scots would rather have had Westminster in charge of tackling the virus.
Instead she said they had trusted her government to "steer us through" and argued "we should do the same now as we look to rebuild."
In a plea to voters to back separation ahead of May's Scottish Parliament, she repeatedly warned them they face a choice between having her or Mr Johnson "in the driving seat."
She hit back at criticism she was focused on another referendum in the middle of a pandemic, saying: "Independence is not a distraction from the task of post Covid reconstruction. It is essential to getting it right."
Ms Sturgeon also announced a £500 one-off thank you payment to more than 300,000 NHS and social care workers and challenged Mr Johnson to make it tax-free despite income tax being devolved.
Attacking Unionist claims the UK's "broad shoulders" help protect Scotland, she lashed out at "brutal" welfare cuts. However, she failed to mention the furlough scheme or the £8.2 billion of extra Covid funding handed to her government by the Treasury.
She’s confirmed it - for Nicola Sturgeon, next year’s election is all about getting indyref2.
Even in the middle of a pandemic, the SNP’s priority is independence above everything else. pic.twitter.com/BtFXlXgIxJ
— Douglas Ross MP (@Douglas4Moray) November 30, 2020
Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, said Ms Sturgeon was "completely out of touch" in the midst of a pandemic. He added: "This was a series of promises brought to you by Rishi Sunak's spending."
Labour's Anas Sarwar said the speech, in which she mentioned independence more than 20 times, was "shameful when people are losing their lives and livelihoods."
The latest official figures covering the second wave of the virus found Scotland had a higher Covid death rate than England in each of the previous four weeks.
A Stirling University report also found 47 per cent of Scotland's Covid deaths in the first wave were in care homes, compared to 30 per cent in England.
But a recent opinion poll found 74 per cent of the Scottish public approved of Ms Sturgeon's handling of the pandemic compared to only 19 per cent for the Prime Minister.
Polls also indicate the SNP is on course for a landslide victory in May and a majority of Scots now support separation, although relatively few consider a referendum a priority.
Ms Sturgeon plans to use victory to force Mr Johnson to drop his opposition to handing her the powers for another referendum, which she wants to stage early in the next parliament.
She refused to rule out legal action if he continued to reject her demand. However, she insisted that Scots' "inalienable right of self determination cannot, and will not, be subject to a Westminster veto."
🏴 @NicolaSturgeon’s full #SNP20 speech.
"We want Scotland to take her place as an equal, independent country. To be in the global family of nations, playing our part in building a better world.
Our vision is open, internationalist and outward looking.”https://t.co/iRgt3ljPBZ
— The SNP (@theSNP) November 30, 2020
In her virtual speech on St Andrew's Day, the First Minister said the pandemic had "caused incalculable grief and suffering" but "argued just maybe we can draw something of value from it too."
She said this included a "renewed belief that what we once thought impossible, can be done if we put our minds to it."
"So as we set about the task of rebuilding our country, there’s a question that all of us in Scotland must ask ourselves," she said.
"The answer to this question will define our country’s destiny and determine the life chances of this and generations to come. Who do we want to be in the driving seat of shaping Scotland’s future?"
Ms Sturgeon said many people backed the Union thanks to the post-war welfare state but she claimed this was now being "dismantled" by the Tories.
Highlighting a series of funding announcements her government has made to help poorer families, she asked: "If this is what we can do with limited powers, how much more could we achieve if we didn’t have one hand tied behind our backs?"
Despite warnings that a separate Scotland in the EU would require a hard border with the remainder of the UK, the market for more than 60 per cent of its exports, she argued the relationship would be a "stronger and better one."
Ms Sturgeon said the £500 reward for health and social care workers was "a demonstration of what we collectively owe you - and a heartfelt thank you for the sacrifices you have made.”
It’s almost as if this tax issue was a political gimmick designed to cause grievance, rather than a serious proposal? 🤔
— Murdo Fraser (@murdo_fraser) November 30, 2020
Speaking earlier, Kate Forbes, the SNP Finance Secretary, pledged not to follow the Chancellor in England by imposing a "Tory pay freeze" on public sector workers.
SNP members also voted overwhelmingly to investigate creating a four-day working week after independence.
The funding announcements came after economists at the Fraser of Allander Institute estimated last week that SNP ministers had failed to spend £1 billion of extra Covid funding provided by the Treasury.
Mr Ross said: "It seems the SNP are finally getting around to using the vast sums of UK Government funding to fight the pandemic, although businesses and workers will be left wondering why they held off until SNP conference to finally get the money out the door on announcements that should have been made weeks ago."
Responding to Ms Sturgeon's tax refund demand on the £500 bonus, a Treasury spokesman said: "The income tax on these payments is paid to Scotland, not Westminster - and the Scottish Government has the powers and funding to gross up the payments if it wishes."
Murdo Fraser, the Scottish Tories' Shadow Finance Secretary, added: "If Nicola Sturgeon wants to give it back, that's entirely a matter for her and nothing to do with Boris Johnson."