Tom Gordon

HOLYROOD’S presiding officer has downplayed talk of postponing next year’s election as “speculative” and “fanciful”, as MSPs return to parliament today after Easter recess.

However Ken Macintosh did not discount the idea entirely, saying any discussions would depend on the duration of the lockdown.

“I’d suggest that we’re a long way off that,” he told the PA news agency.

The Holyrood chamber has been redesigned for today’s sitting, with 50 seats stripped out to leave spaces for just 79 of the 129 MSPs in order to allow social distancing.

MSPs have also been told to use the same seat, not swap around, for hygiene reasons.

Other seating in the parliament, including the canteen and Garden Lobby, has also been rearranged to ensure a 2m gap between people.

Mr Macintosh has asked the parties to ensure MSPs stagger their arrival and exit from the chamber.

One of the key items of business today will be a vote to change the parliament’s standing orders to formalise more virtual meetings.

MSPs are also expected to approve the creation of a new Covid-19 committee which will examine the use of emergency powers during the crisis.

With just one full day a week, First Minister’s Questions will be today instead of Thursday.

The Holyrood election has already moved once in the current session.

Originally scheduled for 2020, it was put off until 2021 to avoid a clash with an expected Westminster election.

The timetable was upended by Theresa May calling an election in 2017 and Boris Johnson calling his in 2019, but the Holyrood date still stands.

With the vaccines that could restore some normality perhaps a year away, a traditional campaign may be very challenging next spring.

Mr Macintosh said reports of an imminent change to the timetable were “speculative, and some of them were just downright inaccurate”.

The attention of parliamentary and Government officials, as well as MSPs, was “very much in the here and now” as they looked to deal with the coronavirus outbreak, he said.

Mr Macintosh added: “In the midst of this Covid-19 outbreak, all sorts of stories gain legs.”

He pointed to reports of people attacking 5G masts, which conspiracy theorists have claimed are responsible for the outbreak.

But the outbreak has added much more weight to scientific knowledge, the Presiding Officer suggested.

He said: “That’s actually quite encouraging because that’s what parliament is all about ... it takes decisions based on evidence and usually expert evidence.”

A Scottish Parliament spokesperson said: “Social distancing is absolutely vital. We have put in place a range of measures so that parliamentary business follows public health advice.”