NICOLA Sturgeon has come under sustained fire over her plans for an independence referendum and the SNP’s record in the first leaders’ debate of the election.

The First Minister stressed her experience and leadership throughout the pandemic, saying: “Covid is not over yet, we need an experienced hand at the wheel.”

She also said she wanted a referendum “when the crisis has passed”, ideally in the first half of the next five-year parliament.

READ MORE: Poll:Who do you think won the BBC Scotland Leaders' Debate?

That led to her being repeatedly forced to defend her position after challenges from her opponents and several members of a virtual audience on the BBC1 event.

She said: “I’ll leave other people to judge if my focus has been on the pandemic or not over the past year. People have seen me literally every single day lead the country’s fight against Covid and I have literally spent almost every waking moment doing that.

“Recovery is not a neutral thing. So long as so many of the decisions lies in the hands of Boris Johnson and Westminster - that often the people of Scotland haven’t voted for, then the danger is we take the wrong decisions and go in the wrong direction just as we’ve been

dragged out of the EU against our will.”

In a confident performance, the new Scottish Leader Anas Sarwar pounced on Ms Sturgeon for talking up plans to tackle child poverty, pointing out half the children in her Glasgow Southside constituency were living in poverty, despite her being FM for seven years and the SNP being in power for 14.

He said it was “very noble” of Ms Sturgeon to talk about poverty, but she had a “blind spot” on the constitution.

He said: ‘If she obsessed about fighting poverty as much as she does about the constitution, imagine how different Scotland could be as a result.”

He added: “This year has been the hardest of our lifetime. That’s why this election must be about you, your family and our national recovery.

“Not egos, settling scores, or going back to the old arguments.”

Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross said: “Nicola Sturgeon has confirmed she would want a referendum in the next two years, the next two years, when we are still dealing with this health pandemic.

“When we’re still trying to recover our economy, Nicola Sturgeon has confirmed to everyone tonight that the SNP will take us forward into another independence referendum if they get that majority.”

With more than half of all Scottish adults having had their first dose of the vaccination, he added: “That’s the union working, the United Kingdom getting the vaccines that are delivered by our NHS staff, our British armed forces and volunteers. That’s the union working for people right now.”

Mr Ross was criticised by others for saying he would refuse to work with the SNP if it was re-elected in May, as it wanted to “divide the country”.

Mr Sarwar said that was childish and the country needed both a better government and a better opposition.

After Mr Ross tried to turn a question about rooting out abusive conduct in all parties onto the constitution, Mr Sarwar told him to “grow up”, and accused him of “shameful” politicking.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said the trouble with the SNP Government was that it was too focused on constitutional issues, predicting another referendum meant years of arguments and divisions, adding: “It will be just like Brexit.”

He also forecast more of the “poisonous” squabbling between Ms Sturgeon and Alex Salmond.

READ MORE: Sturgeon takes on opposition leaders in BBC Holyrood election debate

He said: “After the dreadful year we have endured, I want to spend every second, every moment of the next five years of the parliament focusing on putting recovery first.

“That means cutting mental health waits, it means bounce back support for pupils in school, it means creating jobs for people desperate for work and it means taking action on the climate.

“This is not the moment for another referendum.”

Scottish Green co-leader Lorna Slater, meanwhile, said the coronavirus pandemic had showed the economy had been based on low wages and insecure work. adding: “We must not go back to this broken system.”

She also called for action on climate change, saying: “Science tells us we have less than 10 years before the climate breakdown goes past the point of no return. The time to act is now.”

Mr Sturgeon also faced criticism from Mr Sarwar about the NHS delays and the service no longer treating some recurring cancers, only first cancers.

Mr Sarwar cited the case of Mary Hudson, 69, from Glasgow, who was refused treatment after the return of ovarian cancer in her pelvis, and would now be treated in London.

Ms Sturgeon admitted it was “unacceptable”.

Mr Salmond and his new Alba Party barely featured in the debate, despite a series of gaffes yesterday as it continued to unveil new candidates and backers.

Alba MP Neale Hanvey admitted the party’s goal of electing a Holyrood “supermajority for independence” would not reflect the wishes of the electorate, only the “electoral system”.

Candidate Eva Comrie boasted the plan was to “manipulate it”.

In an interview with the Daily Record yesterday, Ms Sturgeon was scathing about the supermajority plan.

She said: “At the end of the day, we’ve got to win independence fair and square. We can’t game, or cheat, our way to that.”

Eva Comrie, another SNP defector who was one of the candidates unveiled at Alba’s launch on Friday, handed critics further fuel by referring to plans to “manipulate” the voting system.

Referring to the Holyrood’s mixed electoral system of constituencies and regional lists, she wrote in a blog post: “The trick is to cover both. Manipulate it.”

Elsewhere, party candidates were mired in controversy over social media posts.

Former SNP MP George Kerevan and former MSP Jim Eadie became the latest high-profile figures to defect.

Two candidate also apologised over social media posts - economist Dr Jim Walker for recently calling Nicola Sturgeon “a cow” on Twitter, and boxer Alex Arthur for likening Romanian beggars to fat “pigs”.