Nicola Sturgeon came under pressure on two fronts on Wednesday, as opponents criticised Scotland’s slow rollout of coronavirus vaccines and her predecessor as first minister called her government a “disgrace” over its handling of harassment complaints against him.
With Scotland administering proportionately 28 per cent fewer vaccine doses than England and former Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond expected to appear before a parliamentary inquiry next week, opponents of the SNP sense an opportunity to chip away at the party’s huge opinion poll lead ahead of crucial elections for the Scottish parliament scheduled for May.
Ms Sturgeon has said that if a pro-independence majority is elected to the parliament in Edinburgh in May, she will seek to legislate for a second referendum on leaving the UK even without Westminster approval for such a vote.
Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, on Wednesday accused Ms Sturgeon of being in denial when she claimed her government’s vaccination programme was going well. “We’re still far behind the rest of the UK on vaccinating over-75s,” Ms Davidson said.
Ms Sturgeon has blamed lower overall vaccination rates in Scotland on her government’s decision to prioritise the most vulnerable groups even where this was logistically more challenging.
The first minister on Wednesday said 98 per cent of residents in care homes for the elderly in Scotland had received a first dose of a coronavirus vaccine.
The Conservative UK government has said it has “offered” vaccines at all eligible care homes for the elderly in England, but Michael Gove, Cabinet Office minister, on Wednesday repeatedly declined to say what proportion of residents had actually received a jab.
SNP ministers hope the vaccination gap will now close rapidly, with Scotland proportionately administering more than 25 per cent more doses than England on Monday and Tuesday, according to official data.
A relatively strong performance by the government on vaccinations in England would offer a powerful counter to widespread perceptions that Ms Sturgeon has dealt with the pandemic better than Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister.
Pro-union politicians also see a high-profile role for the British military as demonstrating the benefits for Scotland of the three century-old union with England. Ms Davidson on Wednesday hailed as “fantastic news” the announcement that a further 81 military personnel would be deployed to Scotland to help with vaccinations.
Ms Sturgeon said such assistance should not be considered a “favour” from the UK government. “It is our armed forces that the people of Scotland paid for through their taxes,” she said.
While the SNP enjoys a huge lead in opinion polls, the party has suffered increasingly open divisions in recent months.
A parliamentary committee investigating the government’s handling of complaints against Mr Salmond on Wednesday published his formal submission.
In it, Mr Salmond accused Ms Sturgeon, once his closest political ally, of not telling the truth about encounters in 2018 when he approached her over a civil service-led investigation into the complaints against him.
The Scottish government later accepted the investigation was “tainted by apparent bias”. Mr Salmond was last March acquitted of all of 13 sexual offence charges against him.
Mr Salmond accused Ms Sturgeon’s government of defending the investigation process against legal advice. He said it showed “lack of candour and a systematic failure to disclose” necessary documentation to the civil and criminal courts as well as “persistent failure” to produce it to the parliamentary committee.
“The behaviour of the government was, in my view, a disgrace,” Mr Salmond wrote.
In response, the Scottish government said Mr Salmond’s points had been addressed previously. “The first minister looks forward to answering any further questions from the committee when she appears in person in due course,” it said.
Allies of Mr Salmond have suggested he was the victim of a conspiracy by SNP and government officials, an idea Ms Sturgeon has dismissed as nonsense.