Boris Johnson will arrive in Scotland on Thursday with a plea for unity, as Britain looks to build back from the pandemic in the months and years ahead.
The prime minister is heading north to inspect the armed forces’ preparations for helping the coronavirus vaccination programme in Scotland.
Mr Johnson is expected to use the trip, his fourth to Scotland while in Number 10, to make the case for the Union and to urge Scots to reject calls for independence.
The prime minister’s visit comes after another weekend of opinion polls showing majority support for independence and after the SNP announced a second independence referendum would be held, with or without Westminster’s approval, if May’s Holyrood elections returned a pro-independence majority.
‘Delivering for the people of Scotland’
Ahead of the trip, Mr Johnson said: “The great benefits of cooperation across the whole of the UK have never been clearer than since the beginning of this pandemic.
“We have pulled together to defeat the virus, providing £8.6bn to the Scottish Government to support public services whilst also protecting the jobs of more than 930,000 citizens in Scotland.
“We have a vaccine programme developed in labs in Oxford being administered across the United Kingdom by our Armed Forces, who are helping to establish 80 new vaccine centres across Scotland.
“That’s how we are delivering for the people of Scotland so we can ensure the strongest possible recovery from the virus.”
He added: “Mutual cooperation across the UK throughout this pandemic is exactly what the people of Scotland expect and it is what I have been focused on.
“The people of the UK have stood together during this pandemic: from our doctors and nurses in our hospitals to our shop workers, scientists, lorry drivers and teachers – working together as one truly United Kingdom is the best way to build our Covid recovery.”
‘We have a duty to lead by example’
The visit was described as “futile Union Jackery” that could “risk lives” by Neale Hanvey, the SNP health spokesman, at Westminster on Wednesday afternoon.
Nicola Sturgeon echoed the sentiment at her daily Covid briefing, suggesting the prime minister’s visit is not an “essential” journey.
The first minister said: “We are living in a global pandemic and every day right now I stand, look down the camera, and say: don’t travel unless it is really essential, work from home if you possibly can.
“People like me and Boris Johnson have to be in work for reasons that I think most people understand. But we don’t have to travel across the UK as part of that.
“Is that really essential right now? Because we have a duty to lead by example.
“That is why I, perhaps, am not ecstatic about the thought of the Prime Minister visiting.”
‘A fundamental role of the PM’
Scottish Secretary Alister Jack branded suggestions the trip could risk lives as “ridiculous”, adding: “The prime minister is the prime minister of the UK and wherever he needs to go in his vital work against this pandemic he will go.”
Mr Johnson’s spokesman later added: “It’s a fundamental role of the PM to be the physical representative of the UK Government.
“It’s right that he’s visible and accessible to communities and businesses and the public across all parts of the UK, especially during this pandemic.”
Former Scottish secretary Alistair Carmichael said Mr Johnson should use the trip to apologise to crab fishermen in his Orkney and Shetland constituency who have been plagued by export delays since Brexit.
He said: “When the prime minister came to Scotland last summer, he posed for the cameras with Orkney crab and promised good times ahead.
“If he’s determined to visit again, he should meet with those same producers to apologise for breaking his promises and wrecking their access to vital European markets.”