FIRST Minister Nicola Sturgeon has pledged to strengthen Scotland’s international connections, protect the NHS and other “precious public services”, and revitalise the economy through efforts to tackle climate change in her new year’s address to the country.

There was also a veiled hint at moving towards independence “with optimism and resolve” from the SNP leader.

Wishing everyone a happy new year, the First Minister said: “Thinking back to last Hogmanay last year – and indeed the year before that – we’re reminded of just how far we have come, from the very darkest days of the pandemic.

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“That progress is thanks to the extraordinary efforts of health service workers, of everyone who worked so hard to deliver the vaccine programme, and of course to all those who came forward to be vaccinated and boosted.

“As a result of all of that, and so much more besides, many of us will be looking forward to our first full Hogmanay celebrations in three years.

“That said, this has still been a very difficult year for many people. The pandemic has cast a long shadow. And its many impacts are still with us. And on top of that the cost of living crisis is making life really tough for people and businesses across our country.”

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The First Minister went on to hint at the “longer term” push for independence after the UK Supreme Court ruled that Scotland did not have the power to hold a vote on its constitutional future without Westminster’s consent.

Instead, the £20 million fund earmarked for the vote was redirected to help vulnerable people through the energy cost crisis.

Sturgeon said: “So as we look ahead now to 2023, I can promise you that the Scottish Government will keep doing everything we can for those who need it most right now – while also looking to the longer term with optimism and resolve.”

She listed initiatives such as the Scottish Child Payment and the “truly transformational” ScotWind programme as ways in which the Edinburgh government would look to fight poverty and revitalise the economy through fighting climate change, adding that Scotland would also support Ukraine “in every way we possibly can” against Russia’s invasion.

Pledging to “further strengthen Scotland’s connections with countries across Europe and right around the world”, the First Minister also noted that Scotland would play host to “a host of major events – like the World Cycling Championships in August”.

“For all of these reasons, and many, many more, and amidst the very real challenges we face right now, there is much to look forward to in the year ahead,” she said.

“So let us continue with real hope in our hearts to build that fairer, greener, and more prosperous country we all want to see.”

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Other party leaders also issued new year messages, with Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross (above) echoing the First Minister in thanking key workers who work “tirelessly throughout the year”.

Ross labelled the difficulty facing the UK a “global cost of living crisis”, before finishing: “In spite of these challenges, I fully believe that Scotland can overcome any trials it faces to thrive in 2023.”

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar’s message took a sideways shot at Scottish independence, calling for 2023 to hold “unity rather than division”.

He also praised NHS staff – but criticised the overall state of the health service – before saying: “I am determined that next year can be a better one for all of those struggling – a year filled with empathy, unity and hope.”

Green co-leaders Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater (below) were more outspoken in their new year’s messaging, taking aim at the “Tory chancers who wrecked the economy from Westminster”.

The National: Lorna Slater and Patrick Harvie

The pair said the lesson from 2022 was that change starts “with someone raising their voice in solidarity, outrage, bravery, or with kindness”.

Outlining hopes such as the introduction of protest buffer zones around abortion clinics, the Green MSPs finished: “There’s so much more to do in 2023: continuing to win the case for progressive taxation, land reform, investment in housing and education, building a fairer and greener economy, and so much more besides.

“We all have a voice. This year more than any other, we should never be afraid to use it.”

Scottish LibDem leader Alex Cole-Hamilton also reflected on the changes since Covid, thanking health staff for helping the country “to get back to some kind of normality”.

The LibDems’ message was, like the Greens’, slightly more politicised. It took aim at the SNP for “ineffective” Covid vaccine certification required during the pandemic and the £20m indyref2 fund – which Cole-Hamilton said would be spent on Long Covid support “if I were first minister”.

He further pledged “to work across party lines to help find a way forward for our country” in 2023.