Matt Hancock infuriates SNP by using Covid press conference to take dig at independence referendum

Matt Hancock has tonight infuriated SNP leaders by using his Covid press conference to take a dig at Nicola Sturgeon‘s threat of a rogue referendum.

Speaking at this evening’s Downing Street briefing, the Health Secretary said Scotland’s ambulance service called for emergency support over the weekend.

He said other nations in the UK had ‘stepped forward’ to help the Scottish Ambulance Service – something he said proved the UK was ‘stronger together’.

The unsubtle dig came as Ms Sturgeon announced she was hold an advisory referendum on independence if her Scottish National party wins a majority in May’s Holyrood elections – with or without backing from Westminster. 

However Mr Hancock used part of his press conference to stress the importance of collaboration between the nations in the fight against Covid-19 during the health briefing.

He told the press conference in No 10 on Monday that the Scottish Ambulance Service put out an appeal for extra help over the weekend and other nations ‘stepped forward’.

Mr Hancock said: ‘Our health systems across the UK routinely work closely together offering support when it’s needed, and from vaccines to ambulance services we are stronger together.

‘And the UK is stronger together in the fight against this pandemic.’

The Scottish Government’s Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham accused Mr Hancock of using the briefing to make ‘overtly political statements about the Union’.

She argued that SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon would face ‘fury’ if she used her briefings to do the same.  

In a tweet, she said: At Westminster Covid briefing just there, Matt Hancock chose to make overtly political statements about the union. Cannot imagine the fury if Nicola Sturgeon chose to do the same thing.’

Meanwhile, SNP chiefs accused Mr Hancock of using the briefing to make an ‘overtly political statement’. 

Mr Hancock told the press conference in No 10 on Monday that the Scottish Ambulance Service put out an appeal for extra help over the weekend and other nations 'stepped forward'.

Mr Hancock told the press conference in No 10 on Monday that the Scottish Ambulance Service put out an appeal for extra help over the weekend and other nations 'stepped forward'.

Mr Hancock told the press conference in No 10 on Monday that the Scottish Ambulance Service put out an appeal for extra help over the weekend and other nations ‘stepped forward’.

An SNP spokesman said: ‘Covid briefings should be for important public health information only and overtly political statements very much risk diluting the strength of these crucial health messages.

‘Nicola Sturgeon strenuously avoids making political points at her daily coronavirus briefings – but the fact the Tories feel the need to try and use this crisis to try and make constitutional arguments shows how deeply rattled they are by the opinion polls, which say independence is clearly becoming the settled will of the people of Scotland.’  

It comes as the Tory leader in Scotland called for Labour and other parties to join him in a boycott of any attempt by Nicola Sturgeon to call a wildcat referendum on independence.

Douglas Ross said his party would not take part in any vote not sanctioned by Westminster as the Scottish National Party threatened to hold one whether it was given permission or not.

And he called for his political opponents to join him in refusing to lend legitimacy to the separatist project to break up the United Kingdom.

Under UK law the prime minister has to give permission for a referendum, but Boris Johnson has constantly refused to agree to SNP demands for a rerun of the 2014 vote.

Ahead of an expected visit to Scotland this week by the Prime Minister, Mr Ross told an online event for a think tank that if the 2014 vote had been the ‘gold standard of referendums’ then ‘no-one who believes in democracy should enter into this wildcat referendum that would have no actual bearing in terms of the outcome, would not be enforceable’.

He added: ‘It is moving all the focus away from what Scottish politicians should be concentrating on right now: protecting jobs, improving the economy, supporting communities right across the country, making sure our education system is fit for our young people.

‘That is where the focus should be, not on wildcat referendums, which I would absolutely boycott because they would be an absolute waste of precious time and resources when our focus should be on defeating Covid-19, rolling out the vaccine and concentrating on our economic recovery.’

Mr Johnson is expected to head north this week, according to the Sun. He named himself ‘minister for the Union’ when he entered Downing Street 18 months ago, but visiting Scotland is a high-risk strategy, as opinion polls show he is hugely unpopular north of the border.

A survey by Panelbase for the Times at the weekend found that he has a -44 rating for his handling of the pandemic among voters in Scotland, compared to Ms Sturgeon’s +36.



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