NICOLA Sturgeon said the SNP will focus on Scotland’s need for strong leadership to get through the pandemic as the first weekend of election campaigning got underway yesterday.

The SNP leader also said she hoped parties would focus on the serious matter of Covid and less on the “usual Punch and Judy politics”.

Cases showing an upward trend in recent days in Scotland, and Europe battling a third wave of the virus should act as a “wake-up call”, she said.

Sturgeon said: “The way in which communities across Scotland have rallied together over the last 12 months has been truly awe-inspiring – the difficult personal sacrifices that everyone has made have undoubtedly saved lives.

“We have so many reasons for optimism. The vaccination programme is proceeding at pace, the number of deaths has fallen significantly, and restrictions are steadily being eased. With spring arriving we can feel that, in every respect, the world around us is slowly coming to life again.

“But we absolutely cannot take our eye off the prize. Covid is down – but it is not out.”

Sturgeon said the election did not mean Covid has gone away and she will lead a briefing on Tuesday about the next steps in tackling the pandemic.

She added: “This is not a normal election, and a central theme of the SNP campaign will be how Scotland needs strong leadership to take us through the pandemic and into the recovery – I hope that all parties focus on this serious matter and less on the usual Punch and Judy politics.

“But if we want to move into the recovery phase, we absolutely must continue to abide by the restrictions that are in place – to protect ourselves, protect others and to protect the NHS.”

SNP depute leader Keith Brown will today warn that a vote for Labour will “simply hand power to the Tories”. In a speech to the party’s campaign conference, he will promise the focus will be on spreading an optimistic and hopeful message.

But he will say: “The Tories have called for people to remember the spirit of Better Together. Well, Scotland knows what that means. It means votes for Labour or the LibDems simply hand power to the Tories.

“It means instead of Scotland’s recovery being in Scotland’s hands, we would be handing a veto over Scotland’s recovery to Boris Johnson.

“If you vote for Anas Sarwar’s Labour, or even Willie Rennie’s LibDems, you’ll be making Boris Johnson a happy man.

“That simply cannot be allowed to happen – our future and the future of our children is too important.”

Brown will also say the 15,000 new members who have joined the SNP in recent weeks shows how the “contemptible tactics” of the opposition parties has backfired.

“Over the past few weeks we have all been sickened by opposition parties devoting their energies to witch hunts, stitch-ups and the lowest party politics, the likes of which we believed were reserved for Trump’s America,” he will say.

“Their desperate attacks on both the First Minister and the institutions of our hard-won democracy have been unedifying and shameless.

“Those responsible displayed a complete lack of integrity or morality. They are not interested in governing and they are certainly not up to the job of leading.”

The SNP will also set out a range of policies today on ensuring economic recovery from the pandemic.

In an online speech, Kate Forbes will outline plans for a new £50 million Women’s Business Centre, a £100m scheme to support small businesses to become fully digitised and a new £20m fund to provide grants for the creation of rural businesses.

She will say: “Just as responding to Covid-19 has been a collective effort, so economic recovery must also be a national endeavour, empowering everybody to play their part.

 “We will commit to using every penny and every power to invest in this country and support businesses to create jobs.

“But the bottom line is, that despite all the many strengths of the Scottish economy, we need the full levers of control, if we really want to be more prosperous, more just and fairer.

“With both votes SNP, you can elect a government that will put economic recovery and job creation at the heart of everything we do – a government that will reject austerity and invest in our economy, our NHS and our public services.”