NICOLA Sturgeon has suggested that the pandemic could be driving more Scots to support independence – with the crisis potentially making people think “about the benefit of self-government”.

The First Minister’s remarks come after a poll forecast pro-independence parties could be on course for a “supermajority” which could pile more pressure on Boris Johnson to take seriously calls for a second referendum.

The Sunday Times poll predicted Alex Salmond’s Alba Party could secure six seats at Holyrood on the party list ballot – potentially toughening Ms Sturgeon’s stance on the constitution to ensure SNP supporters are not tempted to turn to Scotland’s newest political party.

Mr Salmond labelled the Panelbase poll, which put support for his new party on 6% after little more than one week of existence, as showing his new project is already “gaining ground” and has warned “the next five weeks shall be a political eternity” for unionist parties.

The study put support for independence holding up at 51% when undecided voters are excluded and 54% of those asked want another referendum to take place within the next five years.

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But Nicola Sturgeon, while insisting “there is no upside to Covid”, has suggested that a surge in support for Scottish independence could be a result of her Government’s response to the crisis and people taking a closer look at decisions being made in Scotland.

The SNP leader stressed that if she could “change things” so that the virus had never happened, and that support for independence was lower, she would “trade any day”.

Ms Sturgeon pledged that if re-elected to power in May’s Holyrood elections “the first act of a re-elected SNP government, if there is a re-elected SNP government, will be to continue to take the country as safely as we can through Covid”.

But with support for independence now “higher than it has been at any time ever”, the SNP leader said the coronavirus pandemic may have led to people reflect on the political situation.

Asked if the pandemic may have affected support for independence, Ms Sturgeon said: “I don’t know the answer to that question, what I know is support for independence has grown over the past year, and is at a higher level now, and a higher, apparently sustainable level, than it’s been ever before.

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“What the reasons for that are, I guess is open to debate. I think Brexit still has a big part to play.”

She added: “If I could change things so we never had had Covid and that meant support for independence wasn’t quite as high as it was, I would trade any day.

“But people have, at a time of crisis, looked to their own government here in Scotland to lead, and they won’t have agreed with every decision we have taken at times, but at a time of crisis, I think what we have seen is that natural inclination of people to look to their own democratically elected government.

“And perhaps that has made people think about the benefit of self-government, and it may well be that that is having some kind of impact in the polls.”

The First Minister said that “independence has never enjoyed the kind of reasonably long term, sustained, majority support it has in recent times”.

And while she said there would be “fluctuations in that, I am sure” she added that the “baseline appears to be higher than it has been at any time ever”.

Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross said it was "jarring to see Nicola Sturgeon use the pandemic as a recruiting tool for independence".

HeraldScotland: Scottish Tory leader Douglas RossScottish Tory leader Douglas Ross

He added: "It’s even more galling when the truth is that she didn’t handle this pandemic any better than others. The SNP have built a false reputation based on spin."

Scottish Labour leader, Anas Sarwar, has warned the SNP leader “has a blind spot when it comes to the constitution”.

He added: “Holding a referendum during the recovery would be irresponsible.

“I want us to focus on what unites us a country, not what divides us.

“This election and the next parliament must be about our national recovery, not going back to the old arguments.”

Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie said the First Minister's comments were "distasteful".

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He added: "When thousands of people have lost their lives this is not the moment to draw any narrow political conclusions."

Yesterday's Sunday Times poll forecasts pro-independence parties could have a substantial majority of 29 in the next parliament – while the SNP itself is on course to secure a slender majority by having 65 MSPs elected.

According to the poll, the supermajority would see the SNP and Greens picking up additional seats and the Alba Party securing six MSPs in Holyrood – all at the expense of unionist parties.

The level of support needed for Alba to make a breakthrough appears to be on a knife-edge, but Mr Salmond said momentum was on his new party’s side.

HeraldScotland: Alba Party leader Alex SalmondAlba Party leader Alex Salmond

The former first minister said: “We have only just begun to make our case, but Alba is already registering as the standard bearer of the independence supermajority.

“The reality that voting SNP on the list is the ultimate wasted vote is starting to cut through and therefore Alba is gaining ground.

“A week is a long time in politics. And for the unionist parties, the next five weeks shall be a political eternity.”