FEARS the pandemic may last into 2025 have emerged raising concerns whether a second independence referendum will take place by 2023.

In a sign of how long Whitehall officials fear the crisis will continue, reports today say the Conservative government is laying the groundwork to extend its Covid-19 test and trace system into April 2025.

The Financial Times cites recently published contracts which show that the UK Health Security Agency, which took over Test and Trace in October, has signed at least four contracts with consultancies Deloitte and Accenture relating to the delivery of the programme, with the potential to extend until April 2025. 

READ MORE: Omicron: Scottish Parliament brings in new Covid rules for MSPs

Nicola Sturgeon wants to hold a second referendum by the end of 2023, but has said the Scottish Government will only do so if the coronavirus pandemic is over.

The First Minister warned that the Omicron Covid variant could delay plans for a new vote.

She told the SNP's conference last month that campaigning ahead of a new vote will begin "in earnest" next year should the Covid situation allow.

She wants the UK Government to agree a new vote but has put in plans for Holyrood to hold a second referendum should Westminster continue to refuse to give its agreement.

Commenting, Alba Party general secretary Chris McEleny said there should be no delay to a referendum.

"We need independence now more than ever. We are seeing right now the impact of wearing Westminster’s fiscal chains in that we can’t make public health decisions that require financial support unless the UK Government think they’re a priority in England," he said.

READ MORE: SNP conference: Nicola Sturgeon pushes independence campaign ahead of 2023 vote

"Coronavirus shines a spotlight on the need to have the powers of an independent country as a matter of urgency, if we continue to put off exercising Scotland’s independence mandate we will leave the vital decisions about how we recover from Covid in the hands of Boris Johnson."

He added: "If we can have climate summits and euro championships in Glasgow, Holyrood elections this year and council elections next year, there is not a single reason to delay a referendum on Scottish independence but there are a thousand reasons why the case for Scottish independence must be progressed, now, as an immediate priority."

The UK Test and Trace deals, which have a total value of up to £111m if they are extended to their full length, suggest health authorities are already making contingency plans for Covid testing to continue for several years. 

Under two of the new contracts with the UKHSA, Deloitte stands to be paid up to £67.2m for work on domestic contact tracing and as a “delivery partner” providing IT support. 

The two new Accenture contracts are worth up to £43.9m. The agreements came into effect on October 29 and run for an initial 18 month term but can be extended for up to a further two years. 

Health authorities want “to put in headroom so they don’t get caught out if another emergency situation happens”, said one consultant. The contracts were awarded despite pressure to reduce the reliance on external consultants to maintain the test and trace system. 

Deloitte has separately been awarded a £56.5m contract by NHS Digital to continue providing IT systems for the national testing programme until March 2022, taking the total value of the consultant’s pandemic-related public sector contracts well past £500m. 

The firm, which paid its 691 partners more than £1m on average last year, has also been hired by the Department of Health and Social Care to advise on vaccine passport for entry into hospitality and entertainment venues. 

The UKHSA told The FT: “Drawing on the expertise of private sector partners to provide specialist technology and services is often vital to our work to respond quickly and at scale to health threats. 

“We continue to build a strong team of expert and generalist civil servants and always recruit to the civil service wherever we can.”

“The National Audit Office, public accounts committee and government departments have all acknowledged that consultants can be an important source of specialist skills and capabilities for public sector organisations,” Deloitte said. 

The FT said the UK's Health Department and Accenture declined to comment.

The Scottish Government have referred The National to National Services Scotland about for details of test and protect contracts, when they expire and how long any new ones under preparation run until.

They have also been asked whether UK officials' concerns that the pandemic may continue until 2025 would impact on the timing of a second independence referendum.

Gordon Beattie, director of national procurement, said: “NHS Scotland does not outsource the Test and Protect Service. Our contact tracing workforce remains in place until September 2022. We support wider activity as part of our pandemic response on a four-nations basis between the devolved nations and UK Government.”