Nicola Sturgeon signalled there will not be a second independence referendum until the “acute pressure” on Scotland’s NHS has eased.
The SNP leader said the timing was not about safety in polling stations, but about enabling the nation to have the “space and the time” to properly focus on the issue.
She was asked about the timetable for a second referendum as her party prepares to hold its conference online over the next four days.
In her programme for government this week, the first minister confirmed work would restart on preparing for such a vote with the aim of delivering it by the end of 2023.
In a broadcast interview before the conference opened, Ms Sturgeon was asked about a caveat that meant the timetable was “Covid-19 permitting”.
She said it meant that the country could not still be “in the teeth of a Covid crisis”.
Ms Sturgeon said: “It’s not just about the safety of polling stations, it’s about having a country that is able to focus on a very big decision, and have the space and the time to do that.
“So what do I mean by that? I mean coming out of a position where we’ve got rising cases, where we’re still having to tell people to take care over their own behaviour, where we’re encouraging people not to come together in unnecessary ways and on unnecessary occasions, where we don’t have the significant pressure, acute pressure, on the health service that we have right now.”
Ms Sturgeon had earlier stopped short of saying she viewed the current pressures on the NHS as a “crisis”, but said it was under “more pressure than it has been under probably in any of our lifetimes”.
It’s not just about the safety of polling stations, it’s about having a country that is able to focus on a very big decision, and have the space and the time to do that.”
On day one, SNP members backed steps towards a four-day working week.
They also demanded the UK Government abandons “cruel” plans to cut £20 from Universal Credit payments.
Meanwhile, Scottish finance secretary Kate Forbes raised concerns about a “lack of clarity” over the Conservative national insurance increase.
The SNP’s virtual conference began with a rallying speech from the party’s depute leader, Keith Brown, who claimed Scotland needs independence “more than ever before”.
He called on members to have “respectful, constructive discussions” with people who can be won around to the independence cause.
Mr Brown said: “We must listen to our hesitant fellow Scots and convince them by the power of our positive arguments that there is absolutely nothing to fear, that Scotland is big enough, is clever enough, rich enough, so long as we are bold enough.”
He added: “So today I challenge each and every one of our supporters to reach out for indy.”
Former SNP Government minister Michael Russell, who is now in charge of the party’s independence policy unit, also pushed the message to members.
“The phrase the ‘new normal’ is used often to describe what we need to create after the pandemic,” he said.
“For Scotland, that new normal has to be the normality of independence.”
Conservatives said another vote is the last thing Scotland needs.
It is clear the public have no appetite for Nicola Sturgeon’s plans to divide us all over again and create uncertainty.
– Scottish Conservative spokesman
A Conservative party spokesman said: “The last thing Scotland needs is another independence referendum. That would be deeply damaging from our recovery from Covid.
“It is clear the public have no appetite for Nicola Sturgeon’s plans to divide us all over again and create uncertainty.
“The SNP-Green Government’s full focus should be on our recovery from Covid, but yet again their obsession with independence trumps over everything else for the nationalists.”
The speeches came one day after a poll by Opinium for Sky News found that, of the 1,014 respondents, 51% wanted to see an independent Scotland, when all undecided voters were removed.
On Saturday, Westminster party leader Ian Blackford will address the conference – again making a rallying call for a referendum.
Education Secretary Shirley-Ann Somerville is also addressing members.