It is indeed a funny old world when we are faced with a Scottish Parliamentary election in a few short weeks’ time and the focus of too many politicians is much more on whether we should have another referendum on independence two or three years from now, rather than on how to escape in as positive a manner as possible from the monumental economic and social mess in which we now find ourselves.

Please may we have a constructive debate about how to manage the economy and the public finances for the best in terms of economic welfare across Scotland in this (we hope) fag end of the pandemic period?

The latest UK gross domestic product data show that the decline in the first half of 2020 was somewhat greater than previously estimated, but the bounce back in the second half of the year was a touch steeper than had been thought.

Overall, however, the breathtaking fact remains that, on the basis of Bank of England data, this was the largest annual contraction since 1709!

To add to concerns, the data for Q4 2021 are distorted upwards, according to the Office for National Statistics, by major stock-building by UK businesses – particularly of imported goods – in anticipation of the trauma resulting from Brexit.

This stock-building will have gone into reverse over the first three months of 2021, accompanied by a sharp drop in exports and imports, as Brexit bit, and a continuing shortfall in private consumption as the lockdown continued.

We should anticipate deeply depressing GDP data for the UK and Scotland for Q1, offset (we must hope) by belief amongst businesses and households that the post-pandemic period is nigh and the Brexit-related trade constraints will subside as 2021 progresses.

The level of household savings has shot up during the lockdowns, but the extent that this will lead to a consumer boomlet will depend entirely upon consumer confidence. Retail sector businesses focused on non-essential items have no guarantee of a rapid pick-up in sales as the lockdown eases.

There is plenty for politicians of all parties to get their teeth into in the run-up to the Holyrood election.

The key topics should include how best to foster a balanced, speedy and sustainable recovery; how to tackle the increased inequalities in Scotland which have come into sharper focus over the past year; and policies for climate change – given the small matter of a massive international conference in Glasgow later this year.

Consider first recovery. Given a fair wind both the furlough scheme and the Universal Credit extra payments will come to an end in September. That will prove painful for businesses and households.

The limited rise in unemployment in recent months has been a most welcome surprise. Indeed the Scottish labour market has been broadly static over the past year.

The furlough scheme and other welcome government interventions have prevented the major rise in unemployment that most forecasters were expecting.

However, some 100k more people in Scotland are now claiming unemployment benefit; and the numbers covered by the furlough scheme have only reduced from 500k last summer to 360k now.

Again it is welcome that more businesses than feared have stayed active. Many of these should be ready to take back furloughed staff.

However, two caveats should be entered. First, many of these businesses will have taken on large-scale debts (primarily from the UK Government) simply to survive. These debts will have to be dealt with. Second, many businesses will have sought more cost-effective means of undertaking their activities.

Dealing with debt will involve some combination of interest payments, Government write-off, partial/full repayment and conversion to equity. There could well be a role here for the brand spanking new Scottish National Investment Bank, potentially linked to seeking more innovation in Scottish business and a return to growing – rather than stagnating – productivity.

The enhanced cost-effectiveness of businesses will mean more bangs for the buck, including presumably a requirement for fewer employees, often with adjusted skill sets.

It will most certainly fall to the Scottish Government to ensure opportunities to enhance skills are available to all employees. This must include those returning to evolving jobs; those necessarily seeking new positions post-redundancy; and those entering the labour market after a very turbulent final year or more at school, college or university.

A focus on skill enhancement throughout the actual and potential labour force could well become the Scottish Government’s top priority. Success here would help more businesses to thrive in the shorter term, raise productivity and hence long-term growth potential and keep unemployment down whilst helping to reduce inequalities.

There should be plenty to keep Holyrood and the Scottish Government busy.

And funding should be available. Recent research from the highly respected Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests that, thanks to the Barnett formula, the Scottish administration spends 30 per cent per person more than is the case in England.

The IFS estimates this gap between Scottish and English funding levels as being at its widest in 15 years.

The focus as of now should be on optimising use of these funds and enhanced devolved powers as the recovery accelerates.

Thoughts of a referendum can wait until that recovery – in line with key social and environmental objectives – is firmly and sustainably under way.