NICOLA Sturgeon has told her party conference a new Scottish independence campaign will "begin in earnest" next spring ahead of a 2023 vote.

The First Minister and SNP leader made the comments towards the end of her closing address to the four-day event which came amid concerns about the presence of the new Covid Omicron variant in Scotland.

"Next year, Covid permitting, as we emerge from winter into spring, the campaign to persuade a majority of people in Scotland that our future will be more secure as an independent nation will resume in earnest," she said.

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"In the course of next year, I will initiate the process necessary to enable a referendum before the end of 2023."

During her address she launched a major attack on Boris Johnson (below) and argued Scotland faces a choice between moving on with independence or "backwards" and "weaker" with the Tories who have been engulfed in a series of sleaze crises at Westminster.

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Sturgeon said her task above all as First Minister is to do "whatever I can to keep Scotland safe" and that this duty did not just relate to the pandemic but the country's longer term interests.

"Keeping a country safe is not just about the short term. It is also about building the strongest possible foundation on which to build our future.

"I defy anyone to look at the broken, corrupt, self-serving Westminster system that we are currently part of and conclude that it provides a secure basis for the future of Scotland. So I would not be discharging my duty to the people of Scotland if I did not seek to keep the promise on which we were elected - to offer the people of Scotland the choice of a better future through independence."

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She added that as the new campaign for independence began her party will set out afresh the "positive case" for independence.

"We will outline the opportunities and advantages that independence will open up: the opportunity to repair the damage of Covid - including the fiscal challenges it has created for all countries - in a way that aligns with our values and priorities as a nation. To use our financial and human resources to tackle poverty and give young people a better life," she said.

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First Minister Nicola Sturgeon giving her closing speech to the SNP conference this afternoon.

"To use our vast natural resources to help safeguard our planet and secure green jobs for the future. And to rejoin the European family of nations, so that we can expand not narrow our horizons, and grow our trade across the whole of the continent. We will also be candid about the challenges the transition to independence will present, and set out clearly how we can and will overcome them.

"And then, friends, we will ask the people to decide."

She added: "Now, what the UK Government’s response to this will be is not up to me, but my message to Prime Minister is this: if you have any respect at all for democracy - and if you have any confidence whatsoever in your argument against independence - you too will let the people decide.

"Friends, let us make our case with confidence. Often in Scotland, we talk about becoming independent as if it’s something unusual, something that no country has ever done.

"The reality is very different. In the last 60 years or so, more than 100 countries have become independent.

"Very few - if any of them - have the resources and advantages of Scotland. The fact is independence is the normal state of affairs for countries the world over.

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"The self government it encapsulates is the building block for the progressive internationalism that we stand for. And for countries of Scotland’s size, the simple truth is this: independence works."

She went on to say that Scotland's neighbours across north-west Europe are "all wealthier than the UK, more equal than the UK and have lower levels of poverty than the UK" and that Scotland can match - and "perhaps even surpass" Denmark, Norway, Ireland, Austria and "the many other prosperous independent countries that are all around us".

She continued: "I do believe, more than ever in this new world we are facing, that the best way to secure a better Scotland is to take our future into our own hands.

"An independent Scotland will be an outward looking, welcoming nation. A country that celebrates diversity and works with others to shape a better world.

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"We will be a partner with our closest friends in the rest of the UK, and an EU member committed to values of equality, democracy and human dignity.

"For people today and for generations to come that is a future worth standing up for. It is a future worth campaigning for. And it is a future worth winning."

Earlier in her address she said that the pandemic was her priority as the country faced "very real challenges ahead over the winter months".

She praised NHS and social care workers on the frontline of the pandemic who she said carried the "heaviest burden".

And she urged Scots to make sure they were vaccinated to protect their own lives and those of their loved ones which she suggested was all the more vital following the emergence of Omicron.

Ahead of the Scottish budget on December 9, the First Minister said the NHS would be given "a significant down payment" on a 20% funding uplift over this term of Parliament.

This, she said, "will help build new capacity in the NHS and improve the way care is delivered through, for example, a network of elective treatment centres".

Attacking Johnson's government she accused it of "trying to force Scottish democracy into reverse" and hamper progress on Scotland's development.

"This UK Government is not just seeking to block Scottish democracy and deny Scotland the choice of moving forward to independence. That would be bad enough.

"But worse than just standing in the way of progress, it is - make no mistake about it - Boris Johnson’s government is actively eroding the power of our democratically elected Scottish Parliament."

She added: "It has already transferred funding from the Scottish Parliament to Westminster. It has torn up the convention that the UK Parliament should not pass laws in devolved policy areas without Holyrood consent. And it has passed a law  - the Internal Market Act - that the Labour First Minister of Wales has called, and I quote, ‘a smash and grab’ on the devolution settlement."