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Nicola Sturgeon has said Scotland passing the peak of the omicron wave “clears the way” for her introducing legislation for a second independence referendum.

The First Minister said the timetable for introducing a Bill for another separation vote would be decided in “the coming weeks” despite admitting we are “in the throes of a global pandemic that is still unpredictable”.

She said Scotland appeared to be on the “downward slope” of the current omicron spike and she still wanted to lay the groundwork for holding another independence referendum by the end of next year.

However, she was forced to defend her decision to impose tougher restrictions in Scotland over the festive period, insisting they had been worth it despite admitting they had a “very adverse effect” on businesses.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) disclosed last week that one in 20 people in both Scotland and England, where no similar restrictions were imposed, had Covid in the week to Jan 15.

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The Tories urged her to put Scotland’s Covid recovery first and said her intervention showed “as we know well by now, Nicola Sturgeon’s first, last and only real priority is independence.”

Murdo Fraser, the Conservatives’ Shadow Covid Recovery Minister, added that she “still can’t bring herself to admit the restrictions she imposed over Christmas were unnecessary.”

Sturgeon to take steps towards referendum by end of 2023 

Ms Sturgeon wants to hold another separation referendum by the end of 2023, while Scotland is still recovering from the pandemic.

She has set out plans to stage her own vote if the Prime Minister refuses to transfer the necessary legal powers and challenge the UK Government to try and block it in the courts.

However, legal experts warned that a Supreme Court ruling last October that her government had overstepped its powers on two other Bills could ‘torpedo’ her referendum strategy. Constitutional affairs are reserved to Westminster.

An Independence Referendum Bill did not appear in the Scottish Government’s legislative timetable for the current Holyrood year, and there is no date for its introduction.

Asked by the BBC’s Sophie Raworth when the legislation would be tabled, Ms Sturgeon said: “The preparatory work for that is underway right now. We haven’t decided on the date that we would seek to introduce the Bill. We’ll decide that in the coming weeks.

“But my intention is to take the steps that will facilitate a referendum happening before the end of 2023.”

She said she had won last year’s Holyrood election on that “proposition”, despite the SNP falling one seat short of a majority, and growing numbers of Scots wanted to escape “the chaos, the instability, the unpredictability” of Westminster.

Ms Raworth read Ms Sturgeon a list of the times she had previously promised moves towards another separation vote, including 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021.

Challenged when it would actually happen, the First Minister said: “The preparatory work for that is underway and will determine the precise date for introducing that legislation in due course. We are hopefully… on the downward slope of this wave of omicron which clears the way for us to do that.”

Sturgeon defends Christmas restrictions 

Asked if additional restrictions in Scotland were worth it, she said: “Yes, I think they were. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were in broadly the same place and took broadly the same approach. England took a different approach, as it was entitled to do.”

She said the ONS survey showed around 5.5 per cent of people in England had the virus compared to 4.5 per cent in Scotland.

But Mr Fraser said: “Nicola Sturgeon throws caution to the wind when it comes to her obsession with another divisive independence referendum. It’s reckless to try and split up the country when there’s an economic crisis facing working people and businesses

“The SNP are out of touch with the Scottish public’s priorities. Instead of trying to separate Scotland from the United Kingdom, they should be focusing on our economic recovery from Covid and protecting public services.”

Alex Cole-Hamilton, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, said Ms Sturgeon had last week ordered her MSPs to vote down his proposal for a plan to prevent “burnout” among hard-pressed NHS workers.

He added: “The news that her government is busy preparing the case for independence instead says everything about this SNP / Green government’s priorities during this hardest of winters.”

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