AN independence referendum will not be held this year after the Scottish Government postponed its planning for another vote due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The First Minister had planned to stage another plebiscite during 2020, and over the weekend the SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford insisted he still wanted one held this year.

Ministers won a vote in parliament in January calling for a referendum, despite the UK Government’s refusal to grant powers to hold one.

However, Scotland’s Constitutional Relations Secretary Michael Russell yesterday wrote to Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove saying that planning for another vote has been “paused” to focus on the “unprecedented” impact of coronavirus.

He also urged the UK Government to follow suit, and postpone further Brexit negotiations with the EU for at least six months.

In his letter, Russell said: “Because of the crisis, the Scottish Government has paused work on preparing for an independence referendum this year.

“We have also written to the Electoral Commission to make clear we do not expect it to undertake testing of a referendum question until public health circumstances permit such activity.”

Arguing for negotiations with the EU to also be paused, Russell added: “We would now strongly suggest to the UK Government that the time has come for an equivalent action by you with regard to the Brexit process, and would ask you to institute a pause to EU/UK negotiations for at least six months.

“It would seem impossible for business and others to cope with the enormous challenge of coronavirus while at the same time preparing for a completely new relationship with the EU in nine months’ time.

“A pause is also necessary given the inevitable lack of parliamentary and public scrutiny of the negotiations and their progress over that period, when all attention and effort will be focused on our collective actions to tackle and defeat the coronavirus.”

Responding to the development, a spokesman for the Scottish Greens, which backed a second referendum this year, said: “It is right that the Scottish Government prioritises its resources to deal with the public health crisis that we all face. The way we live our lives has changed and will continue to be dramatically impacted over the coming months. Clearly this unprecedented situation will demand all the attention of the Scottish and UK Governments, and many important issues from independence to Brexit will not be progressed for the time being.”

Scottish Conservative constitution spokesman Murdo Fraser said: “This is very welcome news and will come as a relief to workers and businesses alike. Since the scale of this outbreak became clear, it’s been necessary for all governments and political parties to work together. This announcement from Mike Russell is very much in keeping with that spirit.

“Now we can really dedicate all our efforts to enduring this crisis, supporting those who will be worst hit, and ensure we can come out the other side looking forward to a bright future.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie welcomed the “very sensible decision in the face of this overwhelming crisis” and echoed calls for Brexit negotiations to also be halted.

He said: “I know how much this means to the SNP so it must be difficult to put their ambitions on hold. We will have the debate on the merits of keeping our country together at another time, but we must put all these differences aside whilst we beat this threat to our lives and our way of life.”

Labour MP Ian Murray, who opposes a second independence vote, and is currently in the running to be the party’s deputy leader, also backed the decision.

He said: “This is the right decision by the SNP Government, but it should never have devoted resources to an unwanted second independence referendum in the first place.

“This is no time for constitutional politics.

“Not only should there be no second independence referendum, the Brexit timeline should also be extended.

“It was already virtually impossible to secure a deal that protects businesses and workers, and now there is zero chance of securing that before the end of the year.”