Prioritising Scottish independence in the immediate aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic is wrong, opposition leaders have warned.
It comes as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon confirmed plans to hold a second referendum on separation from the UK by 2023.
Meeting with Scottish journalists, Ms Sturgeon said she hoped this May’s election would be the last as a devolved country and the vote in 2026 would be as an independent country.
Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie said the SNP had the “wrong priorities” and their plans would “divide the country”.
Polls show the SNP on course for a majority at this election, with Ms Sturgeon adding “people weren’t daft”, knowing a vote for the party was a vote in favour of a second referendum.
She said: “People’s key focus right now is on making sure that they have the experienced hand on the wheel as we get through the remainder of this crisis and I suspect that is what is driving many people’s voting intentions in this election.
“But people are not daft. People look across what a party is offering and nobody votes SNP unaware of the SNP’s position on independence and on a referendum.”
Referendum by 2023
Ms Sturgeon added: “My preference would be to have the referendum and offer the choice to the people of Scotland within the first half of the parliament, which is a period that runs, as we touched on earlier on, until the end of 2023.
“If in terms of whether that can definitely happen and if so where within that timespan a referendum would actually happen depends on the situation with Covid.
“I do believe independence and the decision making that that then brings to the Scottish Parliament is important to ensuring we get the right kind of recovery.
“But right now we are still in the teeth of an acute phase of a pandemic, people are still living under very serious restrictions and as long as that continues, not least because people wouldn’t be able to campaign properly.
“We are finding the restrictions of this campaign difficult enough, so for a whole host of reasons we need to get out of the crisis of Covid and then put that choice to the people of Scotland.
“So my preference is within the first half of the parliament but of course the demands and realities of Covid have to be what guides that decision.”
Pamela Nash, chief executive of Scotland in Union, said: “Nicola Sturgeon fails to understand that the pandemic crisis isn’t over when the public health emergency ends.
“We face an enormous economic challenge for years ahead and the entire focus of politicians should be on recovery and bringing communities together.
“To suggest holding a wildcat referendum before 2023 is grossly irresponsible and demonstrates that the SNP is more interested in dividing Scotland than prioritising a recovery.”
Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said: “Nicola Sturgeon’s blind spot on the constitution is on show yet again.
“The pandemic doesn’t end when the public health crisis does – our recovery should be the only priority in the next parliament.
“The only way to deliver a parliament focused on the national recovery Scotland deserves is to cast both votes for Scottish Labour.”
Willie Rennie added: “So the top priority for the SNP in the next parliament is now clear – it’s independence.
“It should be cutting mental health waits, helping education to recover, creating jobs or taking action on the climate.
“The SNP have the wrong priorities and their plan will divide the country when we need to unite to put the country first.”