DOUGLAS Ross has claimed Nicola Sturgeon’s pursuit of a second independence referendum will put lives at risk as public services “play second fiddle” to the constitution.

SNP MSPs jeered the Scottish Tory leader as he suggested drugs deaths would “spiral” if the First Minister focused on the constitution instead of the health crisis.

Ms Sturgeon said the Tories were “terrified” of independence and it was not a distraction but a solution to problems exacerbated by Scotland’s membership of a Tory-run UK.

On Tuesday, Ms Sturgeon and Green co-leader Patrick Harvie launched the first part of a refreshed prospectus for independence, Building a Better Scotland.

SNP Constitution Secretary Angus Robertson later said the Scottish Government intended to hold Indyref2 in October next year.

However Boris Johnson had refused to give Holyrood the powers it needs to stage a vote that is beyond legal challenge, and how Ms STurgeon could hold Indyref2 remains unclear.

At FMQs, Mr Ross reminded Ms Sturgeon that she previously admitted taking her “eye off the ball” in relation to the drugs deaths crisis.

Warning the NHS, education, justice and a host of other public services would suffer if she waged an independence campaign, he said: “We know the First Minister cannot focus on improving our country when she is trying to divide it all over again.

“Nicola Sturgeon is distracted all over again, and we know what happens next. Every time the SNP campaign for another referendum Scotland’s drugs deaths spiral.

“The First Minister has admitted it herself. 

“She took her eye off the ball and people lost their lives. And the latest figures show Nicola Sturgeon’s drugs deaths scandal remains the worst in Europe.”

Urging Ms Sturgeon to back his Bill for a Right to Recovery for drug addicts, he added: “Why should a referendum Bill be passed before you sort out Scotland’s drugs deaths scandal?”

Ms Sturgeon said the Government would look “very sympathetically” at Mr Ross’s Bill when it was published, adding: “I hope we can find consensus and agreement”.

She went on: “There is a real desperation at the heart of Douglas Ross’s approach to independence.

“It’s very telling that he is so terrified of the substantive debate on independence, so terrified of the verdict of the Scottish people on independence, that he’s reduced to somehow trying to pretend that democracy in Scotland is illegal.

“It is not a question of whether this Government respects the rule of law – we do and always will - the question is, is Douglas Ross a democrat?

“And I think the glaring answer to that is no.”

Mr Ross replied: “First Minister, your priorities are all wrong at the worst possible time.

“It is a crucial moment right now for public services and our economy.

“We’ve just gone through a pandemic, war in Europe has hiked energy prices, there is a global cost-of-living crisis.”

He said it was time for people to “pull together” to tackle the issues at hand.

“A focus on our recovery, that’s what the Scottish people overwhelmingly want, not a referendum. We need a strong government for all of Scotland, but we’re getting a weak campaign group for the nationalist minority that values grievance over governing.”

Ms Sturgeon said independence was “about ensuring that we can better meet the priorities of the Scottish people” and claimed the challenges outlined by Mr Ross were being “exacerbated” because Scotland was not independent.