SNP ministers have been accused of undermining their own public health messaging on Covid by withdrawing business rates relief from struggling newspapers.

The current 100 per cent relief for the retail, hospitality, leisure and aviation sectors is due to be extended for at least three months from April at a cost of £185m.

But when Finance Secretary Kate Forbes announced the move in the draft Scottish budget for 2021/22 last week, she left out newspapers, which are also covered at present.

Ms Forbes, who was forced by opposition parties to include newspapers in the first place, last night confirmed she was against extending the relief past March, but said that “if other parties wish to make changes to the Budget, then I am willing to consider proposals to secure its passage”.

The Government and the other Holyrood parties are due to hold talks on the draft budget before it goes to a final vote on March 9.

Giving the rates relief to newspapers for another three months would cost just over £1m.

The Government was forced to extend full rates relief to newspapers last May when MSPs amended the Coronavirus Scotland (No2) Bill as it went through parliament.

The opposition said newspapers were a vital source of information in the pandemic, and needed support to keep going after lockdown caused a sharp fall in advertising revenue.

The Government opposed the move, saying it was already giving the industry some £3m in increased advertising as a result of Covid.

However the Tory proposal passed with 41 votes to 38, with only the SNP against, and “premises for the production of newspapers, and related news platforms” were granted 100 per cent rates relief for the year to 31 March 2021.

Ministers are now dangling a carrot of more cash after a working-group on supporting public interest journalism reports this summer.

However opposition parties said that immediate, concrete help was required, not long-term aspirations.

Scottish Tory economy spokesman Maurice Golden said: “Newspapers were rightly regarded as a key industry during the pandemic last year. However, the SNP failed to properly support them then and are shockingly prepared to let them down again.

“The Scottish Conservatives have called for business rates relief to be extended for up to a year and at the very least newspapers shouldn’t be hit in the pocket for the first three months as the SNP have outlined.

“If the SNP oppose this extension, it would be another slap in the face to our newspaper industry. As people continue to look for vital information on the pandemic, we should be supporting trusted news sources more than ever.”

Scottish Greens co-leader Patrick Harvie, whose party has had the most impact in budget talks through this parliament, said: “Quality journalism is a vital part of stopping misinformation and holding government to account and this is more important now than ever.

“As always, we will defend the ability of the press to operate. If the working group isn’t due to report till summer, it does seem unfair that every other sector will be supported at least till then, with the exception of the newspaper industry.”

Interim Scottish Labour leader Jackie Baillie added: “It is simply unacceptable for the SNP to consider cutting business relief for our embattled newspaper sector.

“The vital role that newspapers play in keeping people informed and connected has only been underlined by the pandemic. It’s time for the SNP to think again about cutting support for newspapers at the centre of communities across Scotland.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: “Newspapers have been rightly recognised as a key source of information for the public throughout this pandemic but it took the efforts of opposition parties to ensure that they were eligible for the same rates relief support as the retail, hospitality and leisure industry received.

“A thriving press is vital to any democracy. Scottish Liberal Democrats will oppose any efforts by the Scottish Government to cut support to the media industry at a time when the public need the truth more than ever.”

John McLellan, director of the Scottish Newspaper Society, said: “It is very disappointing to say the least that the Scottish Government is singling out news publishing for the withdrawal of emergency business rates relief, a vital financial support agreed by the Scottish Parliament, when the Pandemic is far from over. This is in sharp contrast with the Northern Ireland government which has just extended rates relief for its news publishers.

“Further, the Scottish Government has not renewed its commitment to invest in news publishing to communicate important public information about its Pandemic response and its vaccine roll-out, at a time when private sector advertising in Scotland has collapsed because of lockdown.

“There is no doubt this creates an immediate crisis for Scottish journalism, and if these decisions are not reconsidered, it could leave Scotland as one of the few, if not the only, democratic European nations to effectively abandon independent news publishing. “

A Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government has invested £3m in the Scottish newspaper industry through increased advertising over the course of the pandemic.

“We continue to value high-quality journalism and have established a short-life working group to consider how to support public interest journalism. It is expected to make recommendations at the end of the summer.

“Details of the rates relief package for next year were announced in the Scottish Budget 2021-22. If other parties wish to make changes then we are willing to consider proposals to secure passage of the Budget.”