THE Scottish Government discussed using how the Covid pandemic had updated the case for independence shortly after the end of the first lockdown, an inquiry has heard.

Minutes from a meeting of Nicola Sturgeon’s Cabinet from June 2020 showed ministers had agreed that “consideration should be given to restarting work on independence and a referendum with the arguments reflecting the experience of the coronavirus crisis and developments on EU exit”.

The Scottish Government had announced at the beginning of the pandemic it would pause its campaign for a second referendum. Minutes read out at the UK Covid Inquiry, which heard evidence in Edinburgh last week, reveal ministers looked to refresh their work in this area once the strictest lockdown restrictions had been eased a few months later.

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Asked about the minutes, Ken Thomson, the Scottish Government’s director general for strategy and external affairs, rejected an inquiry lawyer’s suggestion this was “politicising” the crisis.

Responding to Jamie Dawson KC, lead counsel for the inquiry’s module on Scotland, he said: “As we moved out of the lockdown restrictions, more of the ordinary business of the Scottish Government started to resume, including this bit.”

Thomson added: “I don’t think I gave significant time to that but some of my team, who for example had been moved from that independence work into work such as travel restrictions, might then have resumed work on this because we had been able to adapt our structures.”

During the course of the inquiry, UK politicians and advisers have previously accused the Scottish Government, in particular Sturgeon, of using the pandemic to draw dividing lines between the administrations in London and Edinburgh.

The National: Ian Blackford

Ian Blackford (above), who at the time served as the SNP's Westminster leader, defended Sturgeon's government for planning for an independence campaign, saying it showed she had an "eye on where the country should be going in the future". 

He told The National: "The SNP demonstrably won the election in 2019, returned 48 MPs, and what was central to that campaign was Scotland’s right to choose.

"I would say to any Labour or Conservative government minister or MP: When are you going to respect democracy?

"What the Scottish Government did, what the first minister did at that time was show outstanding leadership during the Covid crisis.

"Of course it’s right that the priority was dealing with the crisis, but you have an eye on where the country should be going in the future."

The news has sparked fury from the Conservatives, who called it "astonishing and shameful". 

Scottish Conservative constitution spokesperson Donald Cameron added: "If a discussion on pushing their independence obsession was talked about around the Cabinet table, we can only imagine the extent of the SNP’s crass constitutional opportunism on private messaging.

The National: Conservative MSP Donald Cameron

“The Scottish people are entitled to know why a government that assured us public safety was its sole focus was gaming its push for another independence referendum while the death toll mounted."

Lockdown rules had eased slightly in Scotland the day before the meeting took place allowing the reopening of non-essential high street shops, but not shopping malls. 

Small wedding ceremonies were allowed to take place outdoors and some workplaces like factories and warehouses were reopened, while many offices remained closed.  

Cameron said he had tabled a question in the Scottish Parliament to ask whether First Minister Humza Yousaf, then justice secretary, voiced "any objections" to independence being discussed at Cabinet during lockdown. 

He added: "I would urge the First Minister, in the interests of his own credibility and integrity, to respond on behalf of his government.

“The Scottish people deserve an explanation for the scandalous decision to focus on SNP political objectives during a public health emergency.”

Boris Johnson has previously been rapped by independent fact-checking services, such as Full Fact and The Ferret, for his claims that Brexit helped Britain’s vaccine roll-out

And Matt Hancock claimed in January 2021 that the vaccine programme was a "resoundingly powerful" argument for the Union over independence.