NICOLA Sturgeon has said a second independence referendum should be held in the next parliamentary term as she launched the SNP's manifesto ahead of the Holyrood election. 

The First Minister said she did not propose holding another vote "while we are still grappling with the Covid crisis".

But she argued it should take place when the crisis has passed, and insisted there will be no "democratic, electoral or moral justification" for Boris Johnson to block a referendum if there is a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament. 

The SNP manifesto says the party's intention is for the referendum "to be within the first half of the five-year [parliamentary] term".

The Scottish Conservatives accused the SNP of seeking to put "a referendum roadblock in front of Scotland’s recovery".

Elsewhere, the SNP committeed to freezing income tax rates and bands and abolishing all NHS dentistry charges if it is re-elected.

Ms Sturgeon said an SNP Government would deliver a 20 per cent increase in frontline NHS spending worth £2.5 billion, and would establish a National Care Service, backed by a 25% increase in social care investment. 

She said: "I do not propose holding an independence referendum while we are still grappling with the Covid crisis.

"That would be a dereliction of my duty as First Minister to dedicate all of my energies to leading us through the crisis.

"But it would also be a dereliction of my duty as First Minister - my duty to this and future generations - to let Westminster take Scotland so far in the wrong direction that we no longer have the option to change course.

"So it is my judgment that the people of Scotland should decide Scotland’s future through an independence referendum in the next term of Parliament.

"It should take place only when the crisis has passed, but in time then to equip our Parliament with the full powers it needs to drive our long term recovery.

"And after this election, if there is a simple, democratic majority in the Scottish Parliament for an independence referendum, there will be no democratic, electoral or moral justification whatsoever for Boris Johnson or anyone else to block the right of people in Scotland to decide their own future.

"I believe passionately that with the powers of independence we can do so much more for Scotland.

"I look around Europe and I see independent countries, of similar size to us, that are among the wealthiest, fairest and happiest in the world.

"If Denmark and Norway and Ireland can do it, then with all our resources and talent, why not Scotland?

"But whether or not Scotland becomes independent won’t be decided by me or by the SNP or even by the Scottish Parliament.

"It will happen only when a majority of people who live here in Scotland are persuaded to vote for it.

"Scotland’s future will always be Scotland’s choice.

"At this election, we can take a step towards that better future that we all know is possible."

The SNP manifesto states: "We are seeking the permission of the Scottish people in this election for an independence referendum to take place after the crisis.

"This would be within the next parliamentary term on a specific date to be determined by our democratically elected parliament.

"If the Covid crisis has passed, the SNP intention is for the referendum to be within the first half of the five-year term – once the crisis is over but in time to equip our parliament with the full powers it needs to drive our long term recovery from Covid and build a better, fairer nation."

It adds: "The SNP is clear the referendum must be capable of bringing about independence and therefore it must be accepted as legitimate and constitutional at home and abroad.

"As the Scottish Government, we will discuss with the UK Government the necessary transfer of power to put a referendum beyond legal challenge and in the hands of the Scottish Parliament.

"For the UK government to refuse to do so would be both undemocratic and unsustainable.

"If the democratically elected Scottish Parliament passes the referendum bill and the UK Government then attempts to block it by taking legal action we will vigorously defend the Parliament’s will in order to protect the democratic rights of the Scottish people."

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said: "The SNP manifesto confirms that Scotland has a choice of two futures – referendum or recovery.

"Nicola Sturgeon has said it herself – when Scotland is still in the recovery phase, she wants another referendum.

"This is a manifesto to create a new crisis at the earliest opportunity, when we’re going to be tackling the health and economic crisis for years to come.

"If they get a majority, the SNP will put a referendum roadblock in front of Scotland’s recovery.

"No amount of stop signs from the Scottish public will force the SNP to u-turn. They are determined to create a constitutional crisis that would crash Scotland’s economy and force us through years of division and uncertainty.

"The rest of the SNP manifesto is irrelevant. It is a list of future broken promises. They won’t deliver because, just like the last 14 years, they’ll be distracted from the task at hand.

"Nicola Sturgeon will take her eye off the ball on everything else and focus on her top priority – a reckless referendum that she will demand the day after the election, if the SNP get a majority.

"If pro-UK voters come together and give their party list votes to the Scottish Conservatives, we can stop the SNP getting a majority and stop them holding another independence referendum, just like in 2016."

Pamela Nash, chief executive of pro-UK campaign group Scotland in Union, said: "Holding a divisive second independence referendum in the next two-and-a-half years would be reckless and irresponsible.

"The SNP needs to accept that the Covid crisis is not over when lockdown is lifted and the economy re-opens – it will take many years of recovery.

"We need politicians focused on bringing people together, not tearing communities apart.

"We are stronger together as part of the UK and can build a recovery for everyone across the country."