THE SNP have announced the creation of an “independence taskforce” against the backdrop of the Covid pandemic and a looming double-dip recession.

After growing complaints from within the Yes movement about a lack of visible campaigning, deputy leader Keith Brown said the party was now “ramping things up”, and the taskforce would be "the final piece in the jigsaw that will help deliver independence".

Unionists said it showed the SNP was deeply “out of touch” given people’s concern about coronavirus, the vaccine rollout and economic recovery.

The Tories dubbed it the "separation taskforce" and said it was "rash and incredibly self-indulgent".

Mr Brown also insisted staff at SNP HQ were doing an “amazing job” dealing with a huge membership and “vast amount” of administrative work.

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It follows MP Kenny MacAskill and other senior party figures complaining bitterly about the quality of service delivered by SNP HQ, which is run by Nicola Sturgeon’s husband, the party's chief executive Peter Murrell.

Mr Brown said the new taskforce, based at HQ, would be a “dedicated team to focus on delivering a Yes vote”. 

It will be led by an as yet unnamed “high-profile and experienced Yes campaigner”. 

The objective is to “lay the foundations of the referendum campaign” before the Holyrood election due in May, and the team would be bulked up if the SNP won the election.

The team would “dovetail with and complement existing teams” at HQ and publish a series of policy papers on independence, create campaign materials, including “hard copy material when door-to-door activism returns” after the pandemic subsides. 

There would also be a “national information service to assist people making an informed decision".

Almost 20 recent opinion polls show a majority of decided Scots in favour of independence, although there is weaker support for a referendum in the short term.

Ms Sturgeon has said she wants a vote in the first half of the next parliament, which runs from 2021 to 2026.

Although designed to boost activists’ spirits, the taskforce may also puzzle those who assumed SNP HQ was already dedicated to independence campaigning.

The idea, which came from Mr Brown, appears driven in part by criticism from the Yes movement about inertia at SNP HQ on campaigning, and questions over money.

In 2017, the party raised £482,000 through the website, launched after Ms Sturgeon said wanted to hold Indyref2 in response to Brexit, money the party said would be ringfenced for a second independence referendum.

The SNP said at the time: “The funding that was raised during the period of the crowdfunder will only be used for the specific purpose of a referendum campaign. In that regard, the money is earmarked.”

However the SNP’s latest accounts, for 2019, contained no reference to a ringfenced  Indyref2 fund, and the party had total funds of £271,916, of which £96,854 was cash. 

Tellingly, Mr Brown’s announcement of the taskforce says it will have “ring fenced resources allow immediate implementation”.

Keeping the organisation in-house also suggests there will be no re-run of the cross-party Yes Scotland campaign of 2014, which included the Greens and Scottish Socialists.

Mr Brown said: "Our Independence Taskforce at SNP headquarters will be welcomed by party members and grassroots Yes activists across the country.

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"I really believe that when I make the appointment it will also fire-up the wider Yes movement.

“The staff at SNP HQ do an amazing job, with a huge membership to look after. On top of the vast amount of administrative, member care and support work they have been putting on world class events, off and now online, as well leading on digital political messaging - and of course coordinating campaigns that have won numerous elections.

“And now we’re ramping things up. The Independence Taskforce will bring strategic direction and expertise which I believe is the final piece in the jigsaw that will help deliver independence."   

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said: “The SNP are ramping up their push for Indyref2 this year while the rest of Scotland is worried about their jobs and when they’ll get the Covid vaccine.

“They are stuck in the Holyrood bubble with no clue about the priorities of people across Scotland.

“Escalating their plans for Indyref2 is rash and incredibly self-indulgent when the country is struggling through another lockdown.

“Their shameless push for another referendum this year would wreck our recovery from the pandemic. We need to focus on building up Scotland, not breaking up our country.”

MSP Anas Sarwar, who is standing to be Scottish Labour leader, said: “The SNP’s priorities are wrong.

"Right now, political leaders should be focused on the coronavirus crisis, the vaccination programme and creating stability for the people of Scotland.

“As we emerge from the pandemic, what is needed is a taskforce on jobs, health and education – not on independence.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader  Willie Rennie said: "The First Minister promised that the SNP wouldn't start a referendum in the middle of a pandemic, but off they go.

"They can't help themselves. 

"Thousands of people are ill with Covid. Business and workers are desperately worried about their immediate future.

“Despite the promises of the First Minister in the Scottish Parliament, nationalists will always put their own interests first. Liberal Democrats will put recovery first.”

Pamela Nash, chief executive of Scotland in Union, said: “Amid a public health pandemic when people are losing their lives and livelihoods, the idea that we need a taskforce on separation shows just how out of touch the SNP is.

“Imagine thinking that what we need right now is a taskforce focused on dividing communities and building borders, rather than bringing people together and rebuilding our country.

“The SNP is obsessed with how to tear families and friends apart, but we are stronger together as part of the UK and we can ensure a successful recovery by working together.”