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Leaders’ debate: Nicola Sturgeon admits government took “eye off the ball” on drugs deaths

The leader's during Tuesday night's debate

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has admitted her government “took its eye off the ball” on Scotland’s drug death shame.

Speaking during the STV debate on Tuesday night, the SNP leader was questioned on the response to the escalating crisis, which is claiming more than 1,000 lives per year.

Latest figures show Scotland has the highest rate of drugs deaths in Europe, with Dundee having the highest rate in the country.

When asked by Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross about the country’s damning statistics, Ms Sturgeon said: “I think we took our eye off the ball.

“I said as much to the Scottish Parliament.

“I set out what we would do to try and turn it around. I set out at the start of this year a £250 million investment programme to build-up rehabilitation services including the residential rehabilitation to make sure we give more support to community services to make sure we provide faster access to treatment and we have a task force working on all of that.”

She added: “I take the view when politicians get things wrong, and we all get things wrong, it is really important to face up that, it is important to recognise that and it is important to set out what we will do to fix that.

“That’s what I have done on drugs deaths. I’ve appointed a minister to lead forward that work and we are determined to turn that around.”

Angela Constance was appointed the drugs death ministerial role, which had previously been the responsibility of Dundee West SNP candidate Joe FitzPatrick.

Leaders set out their stalls

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said other issues such as tackling drug deaths, improving mental health care and increasing the number of police officers should take priority over another “divisive” referendum.

Mr Ross said the only way to stop a second referendum was to vote for the Tories.

Scottish Conservative Leader Douglas Ross

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar argued politicians must “focus on what unites us as a country, not what divides us”.

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar

In the wake of coronavirus, he insisted: “A national recovery can’t just be a slogan. It must be our collective national mission.”

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon urged voters to re-elect her as First Minister, promising “strong leadership” through the rest of the coronavirus pandemic and a second independence vote “after the recovery”.

First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) Nicola Sturgeon.

Ms Sturgeon said she offered people “continued strong leadership to steer the country through the pandemic”, at one stage pointing out she was the only one running to be “First Minister”.

She said when “the crisis is over” Scots should have “the choice of a better future with independence”.

She added: “I am proud of the record of the Government I have led.

“Like all governments we make mistakes, and we get things wrong and we do not shy away from putting it right and learning the lessons.”

Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie also called for the recovery to be “put first” and warned of re-opening the “old wounds” of the last referendum.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie

He added it would take “35 years” to close the poverty-related attainment gap at the SNP’s current speed, while grilling the first minister on education.

Scottish Green co-leader Patrick Harvie said the election was one “like no other”, not just because of the pandemic and recovery, but because of the imminent threat of climate change.

SNP Greens coalition
Patrick Harvie Scottish Greens co-convener

He added: “Unless we act it may be the last election before the climate crisis spirals beyond our control.”

He said the Tories could not keep pretending things could remain the same in the oil and gas industry, after Douglas Ross asked him what he would say to the hundreds of thousands of workers who could lose their jobs in a transition away from fossil fuels.

Salmond claims BBC and STV ‘censoring’ him

Meanwhile,  former first minister Alex Salmond claimed his Alba party is being censored by the BBC and STV after being left out of the leaders’ debates.

The former SNP leader claimed half of election press coverage has featured stories about his new party but that the BBC and STV were “effectively censoring Alba”.

Mr Salmond said: “The BBC and STV operate as if they were in a self-isolated political bubble in which the initiative that everyone else is talking about doesn’t even appear on their radar.

Alba Party leader Alex Salmond.

“Not only does that involve excluding Alba from election debates but also dictates the daily mentions on all the main news bulletins.”

He added: “We have asked both BBC and STV repeatedly for an explanation of their undemocratic behaviour but have not yet even received the courtesy of full detail of their proposed election coverage over the next three weeks.”

Responding to his claims, an STV spokesman said: “STV’s election coverage has been, and will continue to be, balanced and fully in accordance with strict Ofcom guidelines.

“Alex Salmond has not been invited to participate in the STV leaders’ debate.

“We have offered the Alba Party the opportunity for Alex Salmond to take part in a one-to-one interview with Colin Mackay as part of our series of Scotland Tonight specials.”