PEOPLE drinking in the sunshine, enjoying retail therapy in local shops, meeting up with friends … it’s almost like real life is slowly returning after months of isolation and denial.

Covid’s not beaten yet, of course. We can’t yet get rid of masks – in fact we may not be able to do so for months. We can’t hold parties or gather in reasonable numbers. The choir I’m a member of can’t yet meet for rehearsals outside of Zoom.

Yet there’s a real air of optimism, even in Glasgow where restrictions are tighter than in most of the rest of Scotland (Moray excepted). There’s still some way go in Scotland’s largest city and you can understand the frustrations of a hospitality industry which feels it has done its best to keep customers safe and yet can’t serve alcohol indoors.

But for hundreds of thousands of people all over Scotland it feels there’s hope of a normal life returning, helped by a vaccination programme which has so far administered more than 4.7 million doses and made sure that more than 1.67 million people – more than 30.5% of the population are fully vaccinated.

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But there are thousands of people for whom even the prospect of normal life resuming holds little joy. If you’re poor, one grim day follows another in a relentless spiral of depression.

And, even as the threat of Covid begins to recede, it is already becoming clear that it is the poor who will shoulder the burden of paying for the pandemic.

This week the Westminster government has unveiled plans to slash universal credit payments by £20 a week from October.

This could make life a lot harder for close to a half a million people living in Scotland, according to figures published by the Department of Work and Pensions which show the number of people receiving the payments has increased by 86% in a year – from 264,117 in March 2020 to 490,426 last month.

Boris Johnson as refused to even consider measures suggested by SNP MPs to extend furlough and extra Universal Credit uplift to avoid a ‘’damaging cliff edge’’. Instead the Prime Minister said his government will go “from jabs, jabs, jabs, to jobs, jobs, jobs”, a glib and insulting soundbite which demeans those struggling to find work in an economy which shrank by 1.5% in the first quarter of the year.

We now live in a United Kingdom in which the suffering of the poor doesn’t even register with many of those in power.

Ministers like Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey, who at the same time as announcing universal credit cuts said we “need to get out there and spend our dosh”.

Or like an economist at PwC who said she expected inflation to continue to rise as lockdown restrictions to ease and the economy continued to open “allowing consumers to unleash some of their excess savings”.

Those without lots of “dosh” and “excess savings” to extend will now see what little cash they have snatched back by a Westminster government to whom their problems seem an irrelevance.

The scourge of poverty remains a scar on the UK. We learned just days ago that child poverty has risen in every Scottish local authority over the past six years.

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Research by Loughborough University, on behalf of the End Child Poverty coalition, shows that even before the pandemic levels of child poverty in Scotland ranged from nearly one in six children in the Shetland Islands and East Renfrewshire to nearly one in three in Glasgow. The pandemic can only make matters worse.

The Scottish Government have tough targets on child poverty. The Scottish Parliament unanimously agreed the government must ensure fewer than 18% of children are living in poverty by 2023, and less than 10% by 2030.

With a current child poverty rate of 24% Scotland has some way to go. While there is no room for complacency, that Scottish rate compares to a 30% rate in England and 31% rate in Wales.

The position in Scotland has been helped by a greater availability of social housing. John Dickie, spokesman for the End Child Poverty coalition said the new Scottish Child Payment which started in February had helped to “lay the foundations for future progress on child poverty”. That gives qualifying parents and carers £40 every four weeks for each child under six.

It’s not to let the Scottish Government off the hook to point out that to properly tackle child poverty we need control of all economic levers rather than just those allocated to us by Westminster.

All this is to underline that there is a time imperative to holding the next independence referendum. We know that the most vulnerable in our society will be thrown to the wolves by Westminster is it rebuilds the economy after Covid to protect the bank balances of its rich friends.

We can already see how much it cares about the poor as it sets in place its attacks while Covid still preys on its victims. We cannot pretend to be surprised when it ramps up these attacks.

The most important part of the referendum drive laid out in the SNP manifesto was not the commitment to hold off holding it until Covid had been beaten. It is only common sense to delay indyref2 while government attention is rightly focused on protecting lives.

But the most important part of Nicola Sturgeon’s commitment was to hold the referendum while there was still time for the Scottish Government to take on the powers needed to drive Covid recovery.

The results of failing to win our independence are obvious for all to see:

  • The recovery will be entirely driven by Westminster politicians and Westminster values.
  • Any attempts by Scotland to influence that recovery will be ignored and dismissed, just as our many attempts to soften the hard Brexit sought by rabid British nationalists were ignored.
  • The economy will be rebuilt for the benefit of the rich and we will lose a historic opportunity to forge a society in which the economy is put at the service of the people rather than the other way around.

The months ahead are crucial for the independence movement to lay the groundwork for the referendum but more importantly for the independent country we want to emerge from Covid.

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We need to move on from Unionists’ desperate attempts to deflect attention from that ambition and tie us up forever in sterile discussions about what constitutes mandate for indyref2.

The facts are that we have a mandate and we will use it within the next five years. The alternative does not bear thinking about.