Workers on the coronavirus front line are to get a £500 “thank-you” payment in recognition of their “extraordinary service” during the pandemic, Nicola Sturgeon has said.
Ms Sturgeon announced the one-off payment to around 300,000 workers during her keynote speech at the SNP’s virtual conference, in which she claimed independence was “essential” to recovering from the Covid crisis.
The SNP leader challenged the UK Government to make the £500 payment tax free as she unveiled a series of other initiatives designed to ease the pain of the pandemic.
The cash will be paid “as soon as is practicable” to all NHS and social care workers employed since March 17 this year including those who have had to shield or have since retired.
The Scottish Government will give every full-time NHS and adult social care worker £500 as a one-off thank-you payment for their extraordinary service in this toughest of years.”
The £180 million investment will benefit workers including nurses, porters, doctors, primary care staff, homecare workers, care home staff, hospice staff and residential child care staff.
“The Scottish Government will give every full-time NHS and adult social care worker £500 as a one-off thank-you payment for their extraordinary service in this toughest of years,” Ms Sturgeon said on the final day of the three-day conference.
‘Scotland’s Covid heroes’
The SNP leader added there were “no strings attached” to the payment. But she added that her administration did not have the power to make the payment tax-free and she called on Boris Johnson to ensure “NHS heroes” are not taxed on their payment.
But the UK Treasury dismissed her call saying £8.2bn had gone to Scotland to help during the pandemic adding that the Scottish Government had the “powers and funding” to cover the tax owed.
Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard said the £500 would “not make up for the years of pay restraint and austerity” that carers had imposed on them by “Tory and SNP ministers”.
“Many care home workers are part time so the fear is that they will end up with a derisory payment,” Mr Leonard said.
“There must also be a commitment to a generous year-on-year increase in pay for all key workers, who are Scotland’s Covid heroes.”
In a bid to regenerate the economy by getting young people into work, businesses are to receive £5,000 for each apprentice they employ.
The grant will apply to those who employ apprentices aged between 16 and 24 with the age range extended to 29 if the young person is coming out of care, disabled or from a minority community.
For apprentices over the age of 25, the first minister pledged to pay £3,500.
The first minister also announced a £100-per-week allowance along with work-based training for school leavers up to the age of 18.
In her speech, Ms Sturgeon also confirmed a £100m winter fund, which would result in a £100 payment to low-income families with the criteria based on those who qualify for free school meals.
Earlier at conference, the SNP announced plans for free school meals for all primary pupils if the party returns to government after May’s Scottish Election.
Independence referendum plans
Ms Sturgeon used her speech to reassure activists that she would be campaigning for a second independence referendum to be held in the “early part” of the next parliament.
With party activists growing frustrated by the UK Government’s determination to block another vote, Ms Sturgeon claimed independence was needed to rebuild after the coronavirus crisis.
“Our opponents will argue independence is a distraction from that, they could not be more wrong,” the SNP leader said.
“If we want to make sure the country we rebuild is the one we want it to be, with kindness, compassion, fairness, equality and enterprise at its heart – and not one built in the image of Boris Johnson and his band of Brexiteers – we must work to the right plan, with all the tools we need to do the job.
“Independence is not a distraction from the task of post-Covid reconstruction. It is essential to getting it right.”
‘Thank the Chancellor’, says Douglas Ross
But Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross accused Ms Sturgeon of being “completely out of touch” by “grandstanding” for indyref2.
Mr Ross said the SNP was relying on the almost £10 billion delivered to Scotland from UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s spending to fund the initiatives announced by Ms Sturgeon.
The Tory leader pointed out that the Fraser of Allander Institute estimated “around £1 billion” of funding from the UK Government had not been spent.
“This was a series of SNP promises brought to you by Rishi Sunak’s spending,” Mr Ross said.
“It seems the SNP are finally getting around to using the vast sums of UK Government funding to fight the pandemic, although businesses and workers will be left wondering why they held off until SNP conference to finally get the money out the door on announcements that should have been made weeks ago.”
Mr Ross added: “All weekend she’s been talking up another divisive referendum next year while we’re in the middle of a pandemic. It’s completely out of touch with people across Scotland.”
A UK Treasury spokesman said: “We’ve provided over £8.2bn of extra funding for the Scottish Government this year to support people, businesses and public services.
“The income tax on these payments is paid to Scotland, not Westminster – and the Scottish Government has the powers and funding to cover the tax owed on the payment if it wishes.”