The SNP will judge that the pandemic is over and an independence referendum should go ahead when coronavirus is suppressed and “stable”, John Swinney has said.
Mr Swinney, the deputy first minister in the last Scottish Government, said it was an “aspiration” for the virus to be consistently suppressed by the end of the year in order to meet their conditions for another vote on independence.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has argued that there should be a second Scottish independence referendum once the country emerged from the immediate crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Scotland returned a majority of pro-independence MSPs at last week’s Holyrood elections, with 64 SNP representatives and eight from the Scottish Greens.
The SNP manifesto said that another vote on independence should be held before the end of 2023 if the Covid-19 crisis was over.
Asked how that would be determined, Mr Swinney told the BBC Good Morning Scotland programme it would be when coronavirus has been consistently suppressed and the vaccine and testing systems are operating effectively.
He said: “We judge it by a combination of things – the actions that we’ve got to take to suppress the prevalence of the virus, and to make sure that we are in a stable position.
“Secondly, that we are able to sustain that position to make sure that we’ve got the necessary infrastructure in place to ensure that the virus is suppressed.”
Mr Swinney added: “If the pandemic meets those tests, then obviously we are able to consider the whole question of the timing of the referendum on independence.”
With the vaccine programme due to vaccinate the vast majority of the population over the coming months, Mr Swinney suggested it was an “aspiration” that the tests for focusing on another referendum could be met by the end of this year.
Adding a note of caution, he continued: “But I can’t sit here today and see that will be the case because within a relatively short space in time a situation can become very serious – as it has become in Moray.
“So we have to maintain constant vigilance and make sure that we have that sustainable position in place.”
He added: “I think we’re moving into a period where Covid becomes much less of an immediate epidemiological threat to the population, because of the measures that we have successfully taken to suppress it.”
Earlier on the programme, Scottish Conservatives leader Douglas Ross argued the SNP should focus on the pandemic and delivering its manifesto pledges that are “within the remit of the Scottish Parliament” – rather than pushing for a referendum.
Mr Ross suggested another referendum would create “uncertainty and division all over again” and said: “We need unity.
“We’ve been united together as a country to come through this pandemic and I think people expect their politicians to be united in dealing with the big challenges that we face in the weeks and months and years ahead.”
He added “I think people across Scotland really expect their politicians and MSPs and all political parties to focus on using the powers that we currently have here in Scotland.
“That’s our powers to get on top of Scotland’s drug deaths crisis, the powers to rebuild Scotland’s economy, to protect people’s jobs, to invest in education, support the NHS.
“These are all the powers we can deal with right now to make an immediate improvement on people’s lives.”
Former prime minister Gordon Brown also urged Ms Sturgeon to answer questions on what independence for Scotland means on issues such as costs and the border.
“The big issue is not the referendum, the big issue is independence,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“I would challenge Nicola Sturgeon, she’s had years to think about this, tell us what independence means – the benefits, tell us the costs, tell us about the pound, tell us about the pension, tell us about the border, tell us about quantitative easing.
“None of these questions have been answered and every time you ask her she says she is going to produce a plan some time. We actually should have answers to these questions by now.”