JOHN Swinney has defended plans for a second independence referendum despite being unable to say how long the country will take to recover from the pandemic.

Downing Street urged the Scottish Government to focus on addressing the long-standing challenges of Covid.

However the deputy First Minister said it was right to give people a choice on their constitutional future by the end of next year.

Mr Swinney, the Covid Recovery Secretary, said the country was now in a “much, much improved situation” with Covid, with only “very modest” restrictions remaining.

However he was unable to say even approximately how long the recovery would take, and acknowledged new coronavirus variants could still present a “significant challenge”.

He told BBC Radio Scotland: “I can’t predict exactly how long it’s going to take us to recover from what’s been a deeply disruptive pandemic. We’ve not experienced anything of this type in my lifetime.”

Opposition parties said it showed the SNP’s “warped and self-serving priorities”.

Nicola Sturgeon said on Sunday that she would decide the legislative timetable for a Referendum Bill “in the coming weeks” despite the pandemic being “unpredictable”.

She said that being on the "downward slope" of the Omicron variant cleared the way for Indyref2 next year.

The Scottish Tories accused her of being ready to “throw caution to the wind” in pursuit of independence.

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon to set timetable for Indyref2 Bill in 'weeks' despite 'unpredictable' pandemic

With more Covid restrictions on hospitality and social distancing easing across Scotland today, Mr Swinney said the country had reached a “very significant moment of progress”.

But he said the pandemic was far from over. 

He said: “I think it’s too early to say it’s the beginning of the end, because I think anybody listening to the international commentary on the progress of Covid around the world would indicate that there are significant challenges that remain in the handling of Covid, particularly about the possibility of new variants.

“But I think today marks a very significant moment of progress in Scotland in tackling Covid and enabling people to live lives a bit more closely to what we would normally expect to be the case.”

Asked about the Indyref2 plans, he said: "What we've said all along is that when we get out of the intensity of covid, we will start the preparations for the independence referendum.

"We took the sensible decision back in March 2020 to pause all preparations for an independence referendum - despite having a mandate to do so.

"We've watched carefully the passage of the virus and we now find ourselves in a much, much improved situation. We have very modest measures left in place against Covid."

Asked when an independence campaign would start, he said: “The First Minister has made clear she will set out the timetable for the preparations for a referendum that will take place before the end of 2023.

“Obviously, there’s a variety of protocols that we have to follow enabling the passage of legislation to take place in sufficient time for it to be understood by the public before a campaign period starts.”

Pressed again on the timing of a campaign, he said: “Well the First Minister said that she would explain the timetable for the preparations for an independence referendum very soon.

“I’m not going to share that this morning. That’s being worked on within government just now. We have just restarted the work on the independence preparations, and as soon as that detail is formulated that will be shared with the public and with parliament.”

Boris Johnson has refused to grant Holyrood the power it needs to hold a legally unassailable referendum, meaning any Referendum Bill passed without Westminster consent could well be struck down by the Supreme Court as incompetent.

Ms Sturgeon's preparations for Indyref2 are therefore largely for show, and designed to put pressure on the UK Government to change its position.

Asked if Scotland would be fully recovered from the pandemic before the campaign begins, Mr Swinney said: “We are making a recovery from Covid as we speak. There are business sectors that are in a stronger position today than they were pre-pandemic.

“We see the position on employment being strong within Scotland, unemployment at an historic low. So there are clear signs of recovery. Our Covid recovery strategy is focused on the tackling of inequality in Scotland, which existed pre-Covid, was exacerbated by Covid, and is now going to be confronted in the aftermath of Covid with real focus within Government, particularly to tackle the issue of child poverty.

“So all of these policy interventions will be taken forward by the Government, but it’s right that we put to the people of Scotland the choice about our constitutional future to enable the people of our country to decide if they want to have their future in their own hands.”

He added: “I can’t predict exactly how long it’s going to take us to recover from what’s been a deeply disruptive pandemic. We’ve not experienced anything of this type in my lifetime.

“So we have got to focus on the steps we need to take to rebuild our economy, we’ve got to strengthen the foundations of our economy. That’s exactly what the Government strategy is designed to do, and working with the business community we will work to establish those plans to enable us to have the strongest possible economic recovery from Covid.”

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “People in Scotland rightly expect focus of both their governments and energy to be squarely on recovering from the effects of the pandemic andd working together to achieve that.

“There are going to be long standing challenges caused by this global pandemic. I think certainly it’s what is at the forefront of the public’s mind.

“They want the full focus to be on on the most pressing challenges facing the United Kingdom, these issues that make a real difference to them and their families, whether these are issues are facing the health service on catching up with hours lost in education.”

Tory MSP Donald Cameron said: “The Scottish people will be appalled at John Swinney’s indefensible admission that the SNP Government have already begun planning for another divisive independence referendum.  

“It beggars belief that the SNP consider this appropriate when the country is still subject to their Covid restrictions and all the focus should be on rebuilding our public services and economy in the wake of the pandemic.

“Scotland’s NHS is on its knees amid a staffing crisis and the worst A&E waiting times ever recorded, while the Education Secretary refuses to guarantee that exams will even go ahead this spring.

“Yet against this backdrop, the SNP think it’s time to obsess over the constitution. That shows how warped and self-serving their priorities are.”

Pamela Nash, chief executive of Scotland in Union, said: “This is a gross insult to the NHS staff struggling with the impact of Covid, the businesses that have been decimated, and the families still mourning the loss of loved ones.

“After all we have been through together, it’s astonishing that the SNP wants to return to arguments of the past and divide the people of Scotland.

“The government’s entire focus should be on the many years of recovery ahead, bringing people together and investing in our public services so that we can build a successful future as part of the UK.”