SNP ministers have been accused of “disgusting” behaviour after it emerged they privately discussed using the pandemic to promote independence.

A previously–secret minute released by the UK Covid Inquiry shows Nicola Sturgeon's cabinet discussed restarting work on Indyref2 just weeks after it was halted to deal with the health emergency.

Ministers, including current First Minister Humza Yousaf, agreed that future arguments for independence should reflect “the experience of the coronavirus crisis”.

According to the Daily Record, Ms Sturgeon told the public at her televised Covid briefing the same day: “We’re not dealing with politics at the moment.”

She said anyone “trotting out political or constitutional arguments is in the wrong place completely and has found themselves completely lost”.

By the time of the cabinet discussion, Scotland had recorded more than 4,170 Covid deaths.

However, after more than 600 deaths per week in the spring, weekly fatalities had fallen to the teens with the onset of summer. They picked up again in the autumn.

The Scottish Tories said it showed the Scottish Government’s claim to be solely focused on the pandemic at the time was untrue.

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The Scottish Government halted work on a second independence referendum soon after the virus spread to Scotland.

On March 18, 2020, then SNP Constitution Secretary Michael Russell wrote to then Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove about the matter.

Mr Russell said: "Because of the crisis, the Scottish Government has paused work on preparing for an independence referendum this year. 

“We have also written to  the Electoral Commission to make clear we do not expect it to undertake testing of a referendum question until public health circumstances permit such activity

“That will allow us to focus all available resource on current and future demands in what is an unprecedented set of circumstances. 

“It follows from this that a referendum will not take place this year.” 

Informing Holyrood the same day about the development, Mr Russell said: “The imperative of the moment is clear. We have to defeat the tremendous challenge that we face.

“We  can do that only across this chamber and across the four nations of these islands, and we shall endeavour to do so.”

However a minute of the Scottish Cabinet of June 30, 2020, led by Ms Sturgeon and attended by Mr Yousaf in his then role as Justice Secretary, suggests that stance didn’t last long.

It said ministers “agreed that consideration should be given to restarting work on independence and a referendum, with the arguments reflecting the experience of the coronavirus crisis and developments on EU Exit”.

The Herald:

Tory MSP Stephen Kerr told the Daily Telegraph newspaper: “These revelations are disgusting. When people were dying from Covid, the SNP was focusing on how to use the pandemic to further their plans to break up the United Kingdom.

“Nicola Sturgeon and her SNP colleagues reassured us repeatedly that the pandemic was their sole focus. This has now turned out to be lies-there’s no other way to describe it.”

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The cabinet minute was published by the UK Covid Inquiry on Friday, when its contents were put to Ken Thomson, then manager of the Scottish Government’s Covid Coordination Directorate and in charge of constitutional change as one of its most senior officials.

Mr Thomson rejected the suggestion from Inquiry counsel Jamie Dawson KC that the pandemic had been “politicised in order to try to further the cause of independence”.

Mr Thomson said: “I hope, from the materials in front of you, during this period my -- pretty much my entire attention was focused on Covid and that which was not focused on Covid was focused on Brexit, which also has constitutional dimensions. So I don't agree with that.”

Mr Dawson then read out the extract from the Cabinet minutes.

He asked Mr Thomson: “Is this conclusion reached by Cabinet indicative of the fact that the Scottish Cabinet in June 2020 wished to politicise the coronavirus crisis?”

The Herald:

Mr Thomson paused before admitting: “That runs slightly contrary to what I said in my previous answer and I do acknowledge that.

“My previous answer was in terms of -- I was thinking, you know, what was my focus on, what was the Scottish Government's focus on, what were my team's focus on. 

“The constitutional work at the time, just to give you a bit of context, had been paused, I think I'm right in saying.

“And then -- as we moved out of the lockdown restrictions, more of the ordinary business of the Scottish Government began to resume, including this bit.”

He was also asked about a note he made on 25 May 2021, soon after the Holyrood election and after meeting then deputy FM John Swinney, which said: “Indy is back.”

Asked why he wrote it, Mr Thomson struggled to explain, prompting Inquiry chair Lady Hallett to intervene and question him directly, saying “the question really is a simple one”.

Mr Thomson eventually said: “Right, I was trying to explain why I had written this note.

“If the question is, was there a possibility that independence work would resume, yes that's definitely a possibility. But that's not actually why I wrote it here.”

Scottish Liberal Democrata leader Alex Cole-Hamilton said:  “This is a bombshell revelation.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government is committed to responding to both the UK and Scottish Covid-19 inquiries, as learning lessons from the pandemic is vital to prepare for the future.

“It would be inappropriate to comment on any matters being considered by the UK Covid Inquiry while hearings are ongoing.”