NICOLA Sturgeon has said that a second independence referendum should happen in the “earlier part” of the next Holyrood term.

The First Minister said she could not put a firm date on it because of the ongoing Covid pandemic.

Asked if it would happen in 2021, Sturgeon said she had neither "ruled it out nor ruled it in".

She went on: "I think it's right, not least because of the challenges this country is facing coming out and rebuilding from Covid that Scotland should have the opportunity to choose whether to become independent in the earlier rather than the later part of the next parliament."

The SNP leader said her party would most likely put a "more precise timescale" in their 2021 election manifesto.

However, she stressed that "we are still in the middle of a pandemic, and while I am a lifelong and passionate supporter of independence, I am also the First Minister of Scotland with a very serious responsibility to continue to lead the country through the pandemic".

The journalist suggested that people would see the First Minister failing to rule out an independence referendum "on top of all" the crises caused by Covid.

Sturgeon replied that "reasonable people" will have heard her refusing to deal in a binary yes or no, but "dealing seriously with the nuances of the question".

"Do we want the big decisions to continue to be taken by Westminster Governments that often seem ... [to] have very different priorities to the people of Scotland?

"Or do we want the future of our country to be steered and guided by a Scottish Government, of whatever party in future, elected and accountable to the Scottish people with the interests and priorities of the Scottish people at heart?"

For these reasons, the First Minister added, indyref2 should come "earlier rather than later".

The First Minister was speaking to ITV's Representing Border. She also gave an interview to BBC One.

Asked on the BBC about Westminster's plans to block a second independence vote, Sturgeon said: "If the people in Scotland vote for a referendum, there will be a referendum.

"We see even right now across the Atlantic even [Donald] Trump is having to concede the outcome of a fair, free, and democratic election. The same here has to happen and that principle has to be defended."

Scottish Conservative MSPs and MPs have already taken to Twitter to decry the First Minister's comments.

Douglas Ross said: "There the SNP go again, right on schedule. Their conference begins and the mask slips. 

"A referendum next year is the last thing Scotland needs right now."

The SNP conference will begin on this Saturday November 28, and close after Nicola Sturgeon's keynote speech on Monday November 30. 

Ruth Davidson tweeted: "There she goes again. By her own words - Nicola Sturgeon wants to push for another indyref next year; grossly irresponsible as we rebuild after Covid."

Murdo Fraser MSP said the First Minister's comments were "nuts", adding that the SNP "would live in caves if they could get ‘freedom’ ..."