Rishi Sunak insisted Scotland’s NHS is benefiting from “extra investment” thanks to the UK Government, as he used a trip north of the border to highlight the benefits of staying in the UK.
The Prime Minister, who was meeting Nicola Sturgeon for the second time since moving into Number 10 in October, insisted he was looking to “strengthen” his working relationship with the SNP leader.
He will meet the Scottish First Minister behind closed doors on Thursday evening, before the pair jointly announce millions in UK Government funding on Friday.
That cash will “create thousands of high-skilled green jobs, drive growth, potentially bring in billions of private sector investment and provide opportunities for people across Scotland”, Downing Street said.
The Daily Telegraph reported that this will involve the announcement of two new green freeports expected to be near Edinburgh and Inverness.
But ahead of that, the two leaders will share an “informal and private working dinner” during Mr Sunak’s visit to Inverness.
Prior to that he met some sea scouts, who he toasted marshmallows and made smores with, and visited a helicopter search and rescue base on what was his first visit to Scotland since becoming prime minister.
The Conservative leader said he was “looking forward” to seeing Ms Sturgeon “to strengthen our working relationship and continue discussing our shared challenges and our joint efforts to deliver for people here in Scotland”.
And he insisted the NHS north of the border was benefiting from extra cash, thanks to the UK Government.
Mr Sunak also spoke of his hope that ministers would be able to “find a way through” and end the disputes which have seen both nurses and ambulance crews south of the border take strike action.
Nurses in Scotland have voted for action – but so far no dates for this have been announced.
Mr Sunak stressed: “I come from an NHS family, so I am passionately committed to protecting the NHS and I proud that we have invested record sums into the NHS, and of course the Scotland health service is benefiting from that extra investment.
“And what we’re doing is talking to union leaders, the Health Secretary is engaged in those conversations and I very much hope we can find a way through.”
On Twitter, Mr Sunak said he sat down with Ms Sturgeon “to discuss the challenges we jointly face and how best to deliver for communities across the UK”.
His visit, however, comes at a time when the UK Government’s relationship with the devolved administration at Holyrood has been strained not only by Ms Sturgeon’s continued push for independence, but the potential for Westminster to block Holyrood’s gender recognition laws.
MSPs last month passed the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill, approving changes which will allow trans people to obtain a gender recognition certificate without the need for a medical diagnosis.
Downing Street said no decision has yet been made on whether to invoke section 35 of the Scotland Act, which would block royal assent.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said the move is still being looked at ahead of a deadline next week, adding: “There is a process to consider it and then we will be given advice to make a decision, that’s still taking place.”
Meanwhile at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, Mr Sunak said he wants to work with the Scottish Government on the issue of the North Sea oil and gas industry.
But he claimed Ms Sturgeon’s Government “don’t want to support the Scottish energy industry and the 200,000 jobs that it produces”.
Scottish Net Zero Secretary Michael Matheson said earlier this week that North Sea oil and gas production should “effectively end” in the next 20 years – while Mr Sunak has in contrast sought to highlight his “wholehearted support” for the sector.
He stated: “I’m keen to work with the Scottish Government to support the North Sea because it’s something that we’re all very proud of in the UK.”
According to The Telegraph, the new freeports will be at Cromarty Firth, near Inverness, and on the Firth of Forth, near Edinburgh.
The green freeports are aimed at boosting investment and growth through the use of tax incentives.