Boris Johnson has risked inflaming a constitutional row over Covid support cash by suggesting Nicola Sturgeon is delaying financial help for businesses.
Mr Johnson said the first minister needed to “get on and use the funds that the UK Government is giving the people of Scotland, to support jobs in Scotland”.
His comment came in response to a question from Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross, who hit out at the Scottish Government for not spending “hundreds of millions of pounds” in Covid Barnett consequentials.
He said: “During this pandemic the UK Government have provided the Scottish Government with billions of additional support, but we know hundreds of millions of that remain unspent.
“These are vital funds that could help to create jobs and support businesses, so is there anything further that can be done to encourage the Scottish Government to get these monies out to Scottish businesses as quickly as possible?”
Mr Johnson said he would “encourage” Holyrood to free cash up for businesses.
The exchange comes a day after the UK Treasury wrongly announced £375 million of “additional” coronavirus business support for Scotland.
The Treasury announced a £4.6 billion support package for UK businesses on Tuesday morning, of which officials said £375 million would be given to Holyrood.
But it later transpired that the cash for Scotland was not new and, in fact, formed part of an £8.6 billion fund announced in previous statements.
‘The Tories spin it’
Scottish finance secretary Kate Forbes said she was “disappointed” by the revelation and on Wednesday explained the difficulty in repurposing already allocated cash, as Mr Johnson and Mr Ross have called for.
She said: “Forward planning is essential in a pandemic. But we can only plan with the funding we have at that point in time, because we are one of the only governments in the world that can’t overspend, i.e. borrow.
“Funding is allocated to us not according to need, but only when UK Government spends.
“Take business support, throughout the pandemic, the UK Government has repeatedly told me ‘there will be no more money before end of the year – budget with what you have’. So I have budgeted carefully, pushed the funding we have as far as it can possibly go to help businesses only to then see UK Government finally act, sometimes days or weeks later, generating new (and very welcome) consequentials for Scottish Government.
“But if they’d acted sooner, or had given us a head’s up about future funding, or allowed us to overspend through borrowing, it’s businesses that would benefit.
She added: “The Tories spin it, saying we’re sitting on money for business or we should ‘be thankful’ for what we receive. Both are nonsense.
“Budgeting well in a pandemic matters to the businesses and services that need urgent resources. When funding is allocated as and when another government spends, you’ve got to max every penny and prepare for unforeseen events.”
‘A tough final stretch’
The row came as Mr Johnson told MPs Britain is now in a “sprint” to vaccinate the most vulnerable faster than the virus can reach them.
We are in a race to vaccinate the vulnerable faster than the virus can reach them.
And we need to give our army of vaccinators the biggest head start we possibly can.
That is why we must once again stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives. pic.twitter.com/lR6tAvNZgR
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) January 6, 2021
He said: “These restrictions will be kept under continuous review with a statutory requirement to review every two weeks and a legal obligation to remove them if they are no longer deemed necessary to limit the transmission of the virus.”
Mr Johnson said: “We are in a tough final stretch made only tougher by the new variant, but this country will come together and the miracle of scientific endeavour, much of it right here in the UK, has given us not only the sight of the finish line, but a clear route to get there.
“After the marathon of last year, we are indeed now in a sprint – a race to vaccinate the vulnerable faster than the virus can reach them and every needle in every arm makes a difference.”