LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic underlined the benefits of being part of the United Kingdom as he prepares to visit Scotland on Thursday to confront growing support for another independence referendum.
The bonds holding together the United Kingdom have been severely strained over the last five years by Brexit, the government’s handling of the pandemic, and repeated calls by the Scottish National Party for a new referendum on independence.
Ahead of his visit, Johnson said that Scotland as a part of the United Kingdom gained access to a coronavirus vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and they are being administered by their shared armed forces, who are creating 80 new vaccine centres in Scotland.
“We have pulled together to defeat the virus,” Johnson said. “Mutual cooperation across the UK throughout this pandemic is exactly what the people of Scotland expect and it is what I have been focussed on.”
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on Wednesday criticised Johnson’s planned trip to Scotland, questioning whether his reasons for visiting are “really essential” and arguing it sets a bad example to the public.
Sturgeon, who runs Scotland’s semi-autonomous government, is hoping a strong performance by her Scottish National Party in an election for the country’s devolved parliament in May would give her the mandate to hold a second referendum.
If Scotland voted for independence it would mean the United Kingdom would lose about a third of its landmass and almost a tenth of its population – just as the world’s sixth-biggest economy is grappling with the impact of Brexit.
Johnson, who would have to agree to a new referendum, has said there is no need for a new vote after independence was rejected by Scottish voters in 2014.
Scotland voted against independence by 55% to 45% in a 2014 referendum. But a majority of Scots also backed staying in the European Union in the subsequent 2016 Brexit vote, stoking demands by Scottish nationalists for a new independence vote after the UK as a whole voted to leave.
(Reporting by Andrew MacAskill; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)