A SECOND independence referendum is an "essential priority" for the people of Scotland, the Deputy First Minister has said. 

John Swinney said another vote would give Scots the opportunity to choose how to rebuild as a country following the coronavirus crisis. 

It comes after UK Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said another "divisive" referendum is not the right way forward and does not match the priorities of the people of Scotland. 

Responding on the BBC's Politics Scotland, Mr Swinney said: "An independence referendum is an essential priority for the people of Scotland, because it gives us the opportunity to choose how we decide to rebuild as a country from Covid.

"It would give us the opportunity to design another constitutional future and to determine the nature of our economy and the way in which we deal with and support our citizens. It's a critical response to Covid."

A statement from the SNP's deputy Westminster leader, Kirsten Oswald, also described another vote as "essential".

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has repeatedly said a pro-independence majority in Holyrood after May's elections would make it "unsustainable" for the UK Government to continue to block another referendum. 

Sir Keir said the status quo "isn't working" but insisted there are other things that can be done. 

However he said he did not agree with Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who suggested a second referendum should not take place until 2055.

Speaking on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show, Sir Keir said: "I don't think there should be another referendum. I don't think a further, divisive referendum is the right way forward.

"But I do accept that the status quo isn't working.

"I don't accept the argument that if the status quo isn't working, the next thing you do is go to a referendum.

"I think there are other things you can do, other arguments that could be made in support of the United Kingdom."

He added: "We're in the middle of a pandemic, probably the darkest moment of the pandemic in Scotland, as much of the rest of the United Kingdom.

"The idea that the only discussion we're having about Scotland is whether there should be a referendum when the health service is on it's knees, the economy is really under strain, lots of people and families are struggling in Scotland for their jobs and the future – and every time we talk about Scotland the only question is should there be another referendum."

Sir Keir continued: "If you asked the people of Scotland what their priorities are, and this has been asked many times in the last nine months, most of them understandably say the economy, jobs, health, public services."

Scottish Conservative constitution spokesman Dean Lockhart said it "beggars belief that John Swinney feels another divisive independence referendum is a priority for Scotland while we are continuing to deal with a global pandemic".

He said: "The SNP Government must be fully focused on ensuring the vaccine programme is successfully rolled out as it is what is giving people hope right now.

"They must also urgently get hundreds of millions out the door that they have from the UK Government to people and businesses who are worried about their jobs and livelihoods as current restrictions continue.

"That’s where the Deputy First Minister’s priorities for Scotland should be rather than dragging the country back to the divisions of the past."