Crucial Holyrood’s elections due to take place next May could be axed due to the coronavirus pandemic, it has emerged.
Contingency plans are being drawn up which would see the vote, currently scheduled for May 6, delayed for several months, potentially until autumn next year.
John Swinney, the deputy first minister, said that it remains the hope that the Scottish election will go ahead as planned. However, discussions about alternative arrangements are underway between ministers, opposition parties, as well as Electoral Commission and Holyrood officials.
The possibility of conducting the election by postal vote only, meaning there would be no polling stations on election day, is also believed to be under consideration.
The vote is seen as potentially the most important in the history of devolution, with Nicola Sturgeon to include a commitment to holding a second independence referendum in the SNP’s manifesto.
While Boris Johnson has insisted he would not allow a repeat of the 2014 vote to take place, a resounding majority victory for the SNP would see him face intense calls to reconsider. Keir Starmer, the UK Labour leader, last week conceded that a majority for the SNP would be a “mandate” for a new referendum.
“There's a bit of uncertainty about the period that lies ahead, the Government's plan and Parliament's plan is that the election should take place as scheduled on the first Thursday in May,” Mr Swinney told the BBC.
"There are some contingencies being looked at by Parliament and all parties - we'll continue to discuss those issues because it's vital we should have that democratic process to enable the people of Scotland to choose their government.
"From the Government's point of view we want the election to go ahead in May."
If the election were to go ahead while coronavirus was not fully under control, questions have been raised about the ability of party members and supporters to canvas for votes, and around how the public can cast their ballots in a safe way.
Polls currently suggest that the SNP is on course to claim a majority next year, although Holyrood’s electoral system makes it far harder than it would be at a UK election to claim a majority of seats.
Nicola Sturgeon was also widely expected to win a majority ahead of the last elections in 2016, although the SNP fell short, winning 63 of 129 seats.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We expect the election to go ahead as scheduled but we are working with the Electoral Management Board, the Electoral Commission, Scottish Parliament and political parties to look at options for potentially running an election in different circumstances from the norm if required.”