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Indyref2: Labour say Scottish Government must focus on Covid fight

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Civil servant time should not be taken up organising another referendum, Scottish Labour’s new constitution spokesperson has said.

Anas Sarwar returned to Scottish Labour’s front bench after being named the party’s chief on the “constitutional question”, debate of which continues to bubble beneath the surface of the country’s politics.

Earlier this week First Minister Nicola Sturgeon refused to comment during the government’s daily Covid-19 briefing on a newspaper article featuring SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford promising a second independence vote by the end of 2021.

Mike Russell MSP.

Constitution secretary Mike Russell told the Scottish Parliament on Thursday the cost of running another referendum would be “minuscule” compared to how much was being spent on Brexit, both in working hours and money.

GB or UK?

Earlier, MSPs heard up to five times as much paperwork would be needed to sell Scottish goods on the continent on January 1, after the UK separates from the EU permanently.

David Barnes, head of EU exit strategy and negotiations for the Scottish Government, could not confirm whether frozen fish producers in the North East — and every other exporter — would be marking their exports with a sticker declaring their goods as being from the “UK or GB”.

Mike Russell said: “We are solidly focused on the pandemic. However, we must also consider how we might rebuild.

“The results of Thursday’s poll on how governments are trusted indicate that the people of Scotland would trust the Scottish Government to rebuild far more than they would trust the United Kingdom Government to do so.

“Therefore, getting independence as soon as we can, in order to rebuild — and to rebuild better — would be our priority.

Voters, from left, Sally Gourlay and Sophie MacLeod during the referendum campaign in 2014

“Let me also say something about priorities. The very small number of people who, at some stage, will be engaged in putting together a bill on the proposed referendum would be minuscule compared with the estimated 25,000 civil servants who have been working on Brexit at a cost of more than £200 billion so far.

“To be honest… a person would need some brass neck to compare those two things.”

Should not have to choose between Covid and cancer

In response to Mr Russell’s statement,  Labour’s shadow constitution minister, Anas Sarwar, said: “Civil servants’ time and energy should not be spent on another referendum when there are far more pressing priorities.

Anas Sarwar MSP.

“The focus must be on a period of healing and all collective efforts should be spent on recovering after Covid – rebuilding our economy, protecting our jobs, fixing our education system and delivering an NHS that never again has to choose between treating a virus or treating cancer.”

Middle of pandemic

Scottish Conservative Murdo Fraser said: “We are, of course, in the middle of the biggest health crisis that any of us has experienced in our lifetime, which is rapidly turning into an economic catastrophe.

“The first minister has made it clear that all her energies are focused on those vital issues.

Murdo Fraser MSP.

“We have also just heard that the Scottish Parliament election, which is due in May, could be deferred as a result.

“How can the constitution secretary possibly defend diverting the resources of the government into another divisive referendum at such a difficult time?”

Election contingency in place

Minister for parliamentary business Graeme Day told Holyrood measures have been put in place “in the highly unlikely event” next May’s Scottish election is deferred.

He said: “The Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill, which was introduced on Monday November 16, sets out measures to help to ensure the Scottish general election next May can take place fairly and safely.

“It also sets out a number of contingency measures in the highly unlikely event that the election has to be deferred.”