The SNP has announced the creation of a taskforce to support its campaign for Scottish independence but faced criticism from opposition parties for not focusing on the coronavirus pandemic.
The taskforce could be the “final piece in the jigsaw” for achieving independence, according to the SNP’s depute leader Keith Brown.
He said it demonstrates the independence campaign is “ramping things up”, with the SNP looking to develop a strategy for another independence campaign ahead of May’s Holyrood elections.
“The independence taskforce will bring strategic direction and expertise which I believe is the final piece in the jigsaw that will help deliver independence,” Mr Brown said.
He added: “Our independence taskforce at SNP headquarters will be welcomed by party members and grassroots Yes activists across the country.”
Mr Brown also indicated a “high-profile” Yes campaigner will soon be announced to lead the project and added: “I really believe that when I make the appointment it will also fire up the wider Yes movement.”
The SNP’s opponents have seized on the announcement to argue the party is more focused on breaking up the United Kingdom than tackling the Covid-19 pandemic.
Scottish Labour constitution spokesman and leadership candidate Anas Sarwar said: “The SNP’s priorities are wrong. Right now, political leaders should be focused on the coronavirus crisis, the vaccination programme and creating stability for the people of Scotland.
“As we emerge from the pandemic, what is needed is a taskforce on jobs, health and education – not on independence.”
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said: “The SNP are ramping up their push for indyref2 this year while the rest of Scotland is worried about their jobs and when they’ll get the Covid vaccine.
“They are stuck in the Holyrood bubble with no clue about the priorities of people across Scotland.
“Their shameless push for another referendum this year would wreck our recovery from the pandemic. We need to focus on building up Scotland, not breaking up our country.”
Willie Rennie, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, said: “The First Minister promised that the SNP wouldn’t start a referendum in the middle of a pandemic, but off they go. They can’t help themselves.
“Thousands of people are ill with Covid. Business and workers are desperately worried about their immediate future.
“Despite the promises of the First Minister in the Scottish Parliament, nationalists will always put their own interests first. Liberal Democrats will put recovery first.”
Pamela Nash, chief executive of the Scotland in Union campaign group, added: “Amid a public health pandemic when people are losing their lives and livelihoods, the idea that we need a taskforce on separation shows just how out of touch the SNP is.
“Imagine thinking that what we need right now is a taskforce focused on dividing communities and building borders, rather than bringing people together and rebuilding our country.
“The SNP is obsessed with how to tear families and friends apart, but we are stronger together as part of the UK and we can ensure a successful recovery by working together.”