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Nicola Sturgeon says Covid is ‘focus’ after independence backlash

Nicola Sturgeon is closing the SNP conference in the middle of a new Covid scare.

The first minister is confronting the reality of a deepening Covid emergency as she tells Scots the pandemic is her “priority”.

Nicola Sturgeon goes into the final day of the SNP’s party conference knowing the world is scrambling to deal with the impact of the new Omicron variant.

Her closing speech to activists today is being framed as a plea to tackle Covid, not dominated by the constitution.

“Steering the country through this winter is my priority – it is my duty,” she is expected to say.

On Sunday, Ms Sturgeon was again asked how a referendum can take centre stage within two years while a public health emergency continues.

In a television interview, she was also confronted with major concerns about the management of the NHS.

Meanwhile, veteran nationalists criticised her focus on independence, saying Ms Sturgeon needed fresh ideas.

‘Big challenges ahead’

Comments released ahead of her speech suggest the SNP leader will still address her party’s continued push for a referendum.

But she is expected to say: “There are big and very real challenges ahead over the winter months.

“Cases are rising in countries all around us. We know that colder weather, forcing us indoors, coupled with festive socialising will create increased opportunities for the virus to spread.

“And, most seriously of all, the Omicron variant is causing profound concern here and across the world so we must not drop our guard. This is a time to be more vigilant, not less.”

Restrictions are being tightened and Ms Sturgeon revealed she is keeping open the option of new travel rules.

It’s not enough just to shout ‘independence, independence, independence’.”

– Ex SNP minister Alex Neil

In a plea beyond her party, she will add: “If all of us increase our compliance with the protections already in place, we will help slow transmission.

“So I am asking everyone to please, take the time now to think afresh about the basic steps you can take to keep yourself, your loved ones and the country safe.”

Earlier on Sunday, Mr Blackford, the MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, delivered his set-piece speech to members.

Ian Blackford
Ian Blackford is trying to put pressure on Boris Johnson.

He said the SNP will use time on Tuesday to try to put more pressure on the prime minister.

Mr Johnson was criticised last week for a bizarre speech to business figures in which he lost his place and went off on tangents about children’s character Peppa Pig.

Mr Blackford said: “Unless this Prime Minister is censured, unless he faces consequences for his disastrous actions, he won’t just think he’s got away with the mess he has made of the last few months, he will think he can do it all over again.”

The main speeches have been dominated by tub-thumping calls for independence.

Deputy First Minister John Swinney said on Saturday leaving the UK is the only way to escape chaos.

‘No sign’ of original thinking?

Depute party leader Keith Brown opened the conference on Friday by focusing on the constitutional argument, while saying Covid was still the focus.

However, in a sign of growing impatience among Nationalists, Ms Sturgeon’s former cabinet colleague Alex Neil said the SNP shows “no sign” of original thinking.

“It’s not enough just to shout ‘Independence, independence, independence’ – we’ve got to put flesh on the bones of the argument,” he told the Scotland on Sunday.

“That means spelling out in detail the answers to questions on currency, economic policy, the oil and gas industry, and our trading relationship.”

Jim Sillars, a former deputy leader of the SNP, said the party was saying nothing of substance on independence.

In a pointed remark responding to Mr Swinney’s speech, he claimed: “John could not set the political heather on fire with a can of petrol and a lighted torch.”

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