Senior figures in Scottish politics fear it would be “completely inappropriate” to hold the Holyrood election before the pandemic is fully under control.
The announcement on Saturday that lockdown restrictions would be escalated and extended into the new year has cast fresh doubt over plans to hold the upcoming Scottish Parliament election on May 6 next year.
Amid alarm at the discovery of a more infectious variant of the coronavirus, politicians warned their priority should be the roll-out of vaccinations, rather than chasing votes.
The remarks were made just days before MSPs are due to consider new legislation featuring contingency plans for the postponement of the poll.
Labour MSP Colin Smyth said the fact the election was currently low down on the list of his priorities underlined his concerns about holding the vote in May.
“If we are continuing to battle this pandemic in March, it would be completely inappropriate for politicians at the same time to be running about trying to get people’s votes,” he said.
“We should be absolutely laser-focused on tackling this pandemic, and until we have mass vaccination, the fear is that we are not going to get on top of this.”
If we are continuing to battle this pandemic in March, it would be completely inappropriate for politicians at the same time to be running about trying to get people’s votes.”
Colin Smyth MSP
Mr Smyth, a south Scotland MSP and Labour’s rural economy spokesman, recalled the one-month delay to the 2001 UK general election because of the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, and suggested a similar postponement next year could allow for a million more people to be vaccinated against coronavirus.
“It strikes me that the events of the last 24 hours have shown that until we have got a vaccination and people are vaccinated on a mass scale, the government are never going to get this virus under control,” he said.
“And I think if a single person – whether it is an activist campaigning, or somebody whose job it is to run the election – finds themselves contracting Covid as a result of that work, I think it would be something that would be quite appalling, and something we should be trying to do everything in our power to avoid.”
Craig Harrow, who served as vice president of the Liberal Democrats for six years and is a former party election candidate in the Highlands, raised similar concerns.
“Serious consideration should be given to postponing the Scottish Parliament election, ensuring that the whole focus of the Scottish Government is on dealing with the pandemic and rolling out the vaccine rather than electioneering,” he said.
Councillor Adam Wilson, finance chairman at Dumfries and Galloway Council, also said the focus should be on rolling out the vaccine.
“I think, to be honest, up until quite recently you probably had quite a lot of people saying, ‘actually just go ahead with the election’,” he said.
“But I think as people are becoming aware of some of the operational issues, and actually how to carry out an election and a count, more people are coming to a similar view as mine.”
A spokesman for the Lib Dems said: “We will need to keep this under review but it’s too early to tell.
“Whatever is decided this is not the top priority to consider. The three-week restrictions and cutting Christmas relaxation to one day has a far greater impact on the lives of people. We need to focus on that and keeping people safe.”
Alistair Clark, reader in politics at Newcastle University, said the working assumption was that the election would go ahead as planned, but with an increase in postal voting.
He pointed out that many other countries had held elections during the crisis, and that a lot of contingency planning had been under way in Scotland.
“As far as I understand it, at the moment the approach is going to be still to go ahead,” he said.
“It may be that these recent events change thinking around that, but I don’t think we are at that stage at the moment.”
It may be that these recent events change thinking around that, but I don’t think we are at that stage at the moment.”
Mr Clark added: “Normally there is around I think 18% or thereabouts postal votes. I think people are expecting well over double that this time around, upwards of 40%.
“I think the crucial thing here is that there is a big public education campaign to get people to register for postal votes, and to do so early, because there is going to be significant implications on this for those running the elections.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We have introduced the Scottish General Election (Corona) Bill that will reach its final stage on Wednesday contains contingency measures to ensure virus conditions can be taken into account in ensuring the safe delivery of the election and includes measures to help ensure polling can go ahead.
“Our aim is to ensure that the election will be held as planned on 6 May 2021 with ‘in-person’ voting supported by appropriate physical distancing measures and a substantial increase in numbers of people voting by post.
“The Bill was developed in partnership with the Electoral Management Board, the Electoral Commission, the Scottish Parliament and other political parties.”
New rules would allow the election to be delayed
Changes have been proposed to the rules for postponing Scottish Parliament elections in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.
We previously reported how the contingency plans were being drawn up behind the scenes.
Previously, the Scottish Parliament’s presiding officer had the power to propose a change to the election date by up to one month, under the Scotland Act 1998.
However, it was considered that this did not offer “sufficient scope to move polling day in response to a significant deterioration in virus conditions”.
Parliament could also already opt to legislate for a new election date, but it could not do so after “dissolution”, which was expected on March 25 next year.
A new Bill being considered by MSPs this week would allow more flexibility for processing the expected high number of applications for postal votes.
It could even enable ministers to make the election all-postal vote if it was postponed, or to hold polling over multiple days,
The proposed law would also allow the dissolution of parliament on May 5, the day before the election, so that parliament can be recalled to agree a postponement at short notice, if required.
And the Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill would give a reserve power to the current presiding officer to postpone the 2021 election by up to six months in certain circumstances.