The pandemic allowed the Scottish Government to “set aside” parts of public policy that were already failing, Alex Cole-Hamilton has said.
In his first conference speech as Scottish Lib Dem leader, Mr Cole-Hamilton said there were “warning lights blinking across the dashboard of public policy” which remain unattended to.
He pointed to the educational attainment gap, mental health waiting times and missed climate targets as some of the areas of failure.
“Long before we had heard of Covid-19, things were bad in Scotland,” he said.
“There were warning lights blinking across the dashboard of public policy – they remain unattended to.”
Mr Cole-Hamilton admitted the pandemic rightly took up most of the Government’s time, but added: “It also allowed ministers to set aside the hard stuff.
“Patients waiting in pain, sent letters telling them that their treatment would start in 12 weeks when in fact they would not be seen in 50.
“All of these things were matters of policy that presented a problem for the SNP and so it used the Covid emergency to deflect and defer action on them.”
Mr Cole-Hamilton said voters in the UK are “stuck between two flags”.
“Progress is stifled by a clash of nationalisms,” he said.
“The Scottish nationalism of the SNP, but also the Brexit nationalism of Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party.
“We are a people trapped between flags, between politicians who mythologise and pine for ancient nations and borders just at a time when the world has moved on and demands international co-operation.
“If this boils down to a choice between those two nationalisms, everybody loses and so I say enough.”
The new leader, who took the reins of the party this summer after the resignation of Willie Rennie, set out his party’s stall for voters.
“It’s time to show the people of this country what we as liberals can do for them because I’m tired of fighting elections based on who we are not,” he said.
“If you want a party that will fight the climate emergency with ferocity but without the baggage of nationalism, come with us.
“If you want to live in a country that offers the best education in the world, which values its carers and those they care for, come with us.
“If you want a party that stands unwaveringly for human rights at home and abroad, one that will stand up to state intrusion in your lives, come with us.
“If you’re affected by the national mental health catastrophe, come with us.
“Come with us and I promise you that Liberal Democrats in the towns and villages of this country will show you the meaning of hope once again.”
An SNP spokesman said: “Only someone with as little to lose electorally as the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats would decide to make comments as ridiculous as these.
“In Government, the SNP has worked tirelessly to lead Scotland safely through the pandemic, supporting our magnificent NHS staff and key workers and fighting to protect jobs across the economy.
“The people of Scotland have just had their say on our record in government – and our vision for helping the country recover – in May’s election, where the SNP won a landslide victory.”