NICOLA Sturgeon has been urged to stop government work and political campaigning for independence because of the “perilous situation” caused by coronavirus surging.

The opposition parties said the First Minister should postpone a new Referendum Bill andtimetable promised before May’s election. 

The Scottish Liberal Democrats and Tories said Ms Sturgeon should focus on the immediate health and economic crises created by the return of full lockdown, not the "absurd" choice of a Bill for Indyref2. 

Ms Sturgeon today acknowledged the lockdown and mass vaccination programme could cut across the Holyrood election campaign this spring.

However she said she didn’t think there were grounds for delaying the election “right now”, although she added that would ultimately be a decision for parliament itself.

She also announced around half of new Covid cases in Scotland were of the new highly contagious UK variant.

In addition, the number of people in Scottish hopsitals were Covid had risen by 255 to 1347 in the last week, an increase of 23 per cent, while the numbers in ICU were up 28 to 93 in a week, an increase of 43 per cent.

In last September’s Programme for Government, Ms Sturgeon said independence was vital to reversing Brexit and allowing Scotland to rejoin its European allies.

She told MSPs: “That is why, before the end of this Parliament, we will publish a draft Bill, setting out the proposed terms and timing of an independence referendum, as well as the proposed question that people will be asked in that referendum.

“And then at next year’s election, we will make the case for Scotland to become an independent country, and seek a clear endorsement of Scotland’s right to choose our own future.”

Scottish LibDem leader Willie Rennie said tackling the deadly third wave of the virus should take precedence over the SNP’s constitutional ambitions.

He pointed out that the SNP suspended its work on independence during the lockdown of 2020, including Indyref2 plans, yet had not done so for lockdown 2021.

He said: “We need to put the recovery first as we face this colossal new wave of the virus. If the country is to be locked down, so should the campaign for independence.

“The last time people were told to stay at home the First Minister suspended her constitutional campaign and stopped all work in government on the matter. 

“The country and the NHS are now in an even more perilous situation so she needs to do that again.  

“Civil servants are being put to work right now on the SNP’s next Independence Bill.  That is the wrong priority for government. 

“That work and any other work on independence should cease without delay.”

He went on: “Just before Christmas the First Minister criticised Boris Johnson for pursuing Brexit in the middle of a pandemic. When I challenged her to suspend the independence campaign for the very same reason she declined. 

“She was wrong then and she will be even more wrong now if she fails to act. 

“Just because Boris Johnson failed to listen does not mean she has to copy him. There is no justification for pursuing such massive constitutional change in the middle of a global pandemic.

“We are facing crises on all fronts – education, mental health and the economy. It has to be all hands on deck. The First Minister needs to put independence to one side and focus on this deadly third wave of the pandemic. Recovery must come first.” 

Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross said: “The SNP’s choice to prioritise their Indyref Bill is more absurd than ever when the country is in lockdown and people across Scotland only care about fighting this pandemic.

“There is so little time left in this term and the Parliament’s essential work will clearly be limited by the impact of Covid-19 restrictions.

“It would be irresponsible in the extreme to keep diverting precious time and civil servants attention away from the most important issues – like the vaccine delivery, education and protecting jobs – and onto another divisive referendum instead.

“We can’t waste time on the same constitutional arguments of the last 13 years when all our attention should be on moving on from this pandemic.”

Asked about the independence campaign on Channel 4 News on Monday, Ms Sturgeon said: “Last February, March when Covid-19 struck and the pandemic struck, I put campaigning and planning for an independence referendum on hold.

“Literally every day between now and then I have rightly – as is my duty to the Scottish people – been focused on trying to deal with and tackle the Covid-19 pandemic.

“That will remain the case for as long as we are in the grip of this pandemic.”

She added that the recovery from the health and economic crisis is “an opportunity to tackle some of the deep-seated issues and problems of inequality and poverty” and therefore has to include questions about Scottish independence.

Ms Sturgeon continued: “That’s not a distraction from that process of recovery.

“That’s part and parcel of making sure we are deciding as a country in Scotland what we recover to – and that’s not been driven by a UK Government that’s values are very different to those of the majority of Scotland.

“But right now, my focus as First Minister, every single day, literally every hour of every single day, is making sure that I’m steering this country as safely as possible through this pandemic.”

A spokesperson for the First Minister added: “No one is proposing holding an independence referendum in the middle of the pandemic – unlike the Tories, who have disgracefully ploughed ahead with Brexit amid the Covid crisis.

“It is not for the Tories, or the Lib Dems – who are now a pro-Brexit party – to dictate to the people of Scotland what choices they should have over the nation’s future.

"That will only be decided by the people themselves in the coming election.

“We have a Programme for Government commitment to publish a Bill before the end of this current parliament, to set out the terms of a future referendum clearly and unambiguously. Such a referendum will allow the people of Scotland to choose who is best to lead them out of the current crisis and to oversee the rebuilding of the country after the pandemic.”