Nicola Sturgeon has claimed independence is “essential” to help with the task of rebuilding Scotland after coronavirus.
Scotland’s First Minister said she will use next May’s Holyrood election to try to win a mandate to hold an independence referendum “in the early part of the new Parliament”.
She also announced the Scottish Government will give all health and social care workers a “thank-you” payment for their efforts during the pandemic.
While her opponents have criticised her for speaking about the issue during the pandemic, the SNP leader said in her closing speech to her party’s conference on Monday: “Independence is not a distraction from the task of post-Covid reconstruction.
“It is essential to getting it right.”
She said this is important “if we want to make sure the country we rebuild is the one we want it to be, with kindness, compassion, fairness, equality and enterprise at its heart, and not one built in the image of Boris Johnson and his band of Brexiteers”.
The First Minister said she accepts “many” Scots would “prefer a stronger Scottish Parliament to independence” but said the “hard truth” is this is not on offer from Westminster, as she accused the Tories of trying to take powers away from Holyrood.
With the UK’s Brexit transition period due to finish at the end of December, she criticised the UK Government for not extending it.
She claimed Brexit would be a “huge, damaging change at the best of times” but added that in “these most difficult of times it is unforgivable”.
The First Minister said the UK Government’s Internal Market Bill, setting out how trade between the four nations of the UK will operate post-Brexit, is a “Trojan Horse that will allow Westminster to work its way into the very heart of the devolution settlement”.
She said the “choice for Scotland is pressing” as the Holyrood election approaches, asking people: “Are we prepared to have the powers we voted for stripped away – at a time when we need them most?
“Are we prepared for our Scottish Parliament to be undermined and dragged down by Westminster?
“Or will we decide to make our Scottish Parliament independent?”
Ms Sturgeon said she will use that election to seek voters’ authority for a second independence referendum – something the Prime Minister has repeatedly said he will not grant.
Ms Sturgeon revealed full-time health and social care workers will receive a £500 payment, with a proportionate amount for part-time staff.
She urged Mr Johnson not to tax workers on the cash, which she said is a “one-off thank-you” to be paid this year to NHS and care employees “for their extraordinary service in this toughest of years”.
The First Minister said: “A payment like this can never come close to expressing our full admiration for those who have cared for us so heroically.
“But to our health and care workers, it is a demonstration of what we collectively owe you – and a heartfelt thank you for the sacrifices you have made.”
She said the Scottish Government does not have the power to make this payment tax-free, telling Mr Johnson: “Prime Minister, you do. So I am asking you this: Please allow our health and care heroes to keep every penny of Scotland’s thank you to them.
“Do not take any of it away in tax.”
In her address, she also revealed a £100 million package from the Scottish Government to help those who have been left struggling this winter because of coronavirus.
It means all families with a child in receipt of free school meals get a payment of £100.
Businesses will receive financial help if they take on an apprentice, with the First Minister stressing the need to help the “generation of young people caught so cruelly in the eye of the Covid storm”.
The Scottish Government will invest £15 million in this, Ms Sturgeon said, while a separate programme will provide work-based training and a £100 a week allowance for school leavers up to age 18.
This Pathway to Apprenticeships scheme should help 1,200 young people gain key skills in sectors including construction, business, IT, engineering and the early years, she added.
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said afterwards that Ms Sturgeon made “a series of SNP promises brought to you by Rishi Sunak’s spending”.
He added: “All weekend she’s been talking up another divisive referendum next year while we’re in the middle of a pandemic.
“It’s completely out of touch with people across Scotland.”
Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard said: “A one-off payment is no substitute at all for the significant increase in salary that all Scotland’s health and care workers deserve.
“This sum announced by Nicola Sturgeon will not make up for the years of pay restraint and austerity that staff in these sectors have had imposed on them by Tory and SNP ministers.”