NICOLA Sturgeon has not ruled out pushing for a second independence referendum to be held next year. 

The First Minister insisted she has not "put a date on it yet" but another vote should be held "in the earlier rather than the later part of the next parliament". 

It follows SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford and Constitution Secretary Michael Russell both suggesting a referendum could be held in 2021.

Ms Sturgeon was asked if she intends to hold a second independence referendum next year during an interview with ITV Border.

She said: "I've not put a date on it yet. I've not ruled that out, nor have I ruled it in.

"I think it's right, not least because of the challenges countries face in coming out and rebuilding from Covid, that Scotland should have the opportunity to choose whether or not to become independent in the earlier rather than the later part of the next parliament.

"Before the election in our manifesto I would anticipate we will put a more precise timescale on what we believe should happen. 

"But right now - this is getting to the heart of why I'm just not prepared to put a specific date on it right now - we are still in the middle of a pandemic. 

"While I'm a lifelong campaigner for, passionate believer in independence, I'm also the First Minister of Scotland with a very serious responsibility to continue to lead the country through a pandemic."

Scottish Secretary Alister Jack recently said the UK Conservative Government would not agree to a second referendum "for a generation".

However the SNP hopes this position will become unsustainable if the party secures a majority at the Holyrood elections in May.

Ms Sturgeon was speaking ahead of the SNP's conference this weekend, which is being held virtually.

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said another referendum was "the last thing Scotland needs".

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: "On the day the SNP government is questioned on its inability to keep care homes safe, we find the First Minister had been spending time planning a referendum.

"We need a government that's focused needle-sharp on recovery from this crisis."

Pamela Nash, chief executive of Scotland in Union, said: "Seeking to divide us with another referendum is the wrong priority and it is not the priority of the people of Scotland."