PM says 'Covid-19 has proven merit of UK' but Scot protesters say crisis has shown it to be 'dysfunctional'

  • Video report by ITV News Scotland correspondent Peter Smith

Boris Johnson has said Britain's response to the coronavirus pandemic has proven the "merit" of the UK upon a visit to Scotland aimed at promoting the United Kingdom.

The prime minister - who says the Covid-19 crisis has proven the "sheer might" of the UK - is meeting local businesses to "reaffirm his commitment" to supporting all parts of the British Isles.

In Orkney, the prime minister said the Covid-19 pandemic has shown the "merits of the Union are very, very strong".

But ahead of the visit to Orkney a small group of masked protesters held signs with slogans including “Hands off Scotland”.

One nationalist protester told ITV News he believes the PM "made this desperate dash up to Scotland - come all the way up here to Orkney - because the polls have been showing a 'Yes' [to leaving the UK] lead".

"Rightly or wrongly he's decided that he needs to come up here and save the Union, but I think the Union has been seen as fairly dysfunctional through the whole coronavirus crisis," he added.

"There's a certain difference between Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England in terms of the way that this has been handled and in terms of the way that the leaderships of each country has been perceived."

The protester, named Robert Leslie, says Nicola Sturgeon has "very positive approval ratings" compared to Mr Johnson, who has been "wallowing in some kind of minus figure, nearly as bad as Donald Trump".

Mr Johnson disagreed, saying the merits of the Union have "been proved throughout this crisis", adding how he made his journey to Orkney to show how we can not just deal with the health crisis but work to deal with the economic consequences together".

He denied he was suggesting Scotland could not handle a pandemic alone, but rubbished the idea of holding a fresh independence referendum.

He said: "We had a referendum on breaking up the union a few years ago, I think only six years ago, that is not a generation by any computation and I think what people really want to do is see our whole country coming back strongly together and that’s what we’re going to do."

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Mr Johnson needs to "listen, not lecture" Scots during his visit, but he agreed "we shouldn't be pulling apart the UK".

Mr Johnson Scotland visit comes one day before the one year anniversary of his first day as PM on Friday.

He will say that being part of the UK saved 900,000 Scottish jobs during the pandemic, according to the BBC, which reported Inverness MP Drew Hendry of the SNP as saying Scotland could flourish as an independent country.

Downing Street said that during his visit - his first to Scotland since the general election in December - the Prime Minister will meet with businesses hit by the pandemic, those working in green energy, and military personnel to thank them for their efforts in the response to coronavirus.

There are no plans to meet First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who said at her regular coronavirus briefing on Wednesday that she would be willing to meet with the Prime Minister.

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Credit: PA

Ms Sturgeon said she welcomes Boris Johnson's visit - claiming it highlights how the Scottish people are being taken "down a path we haven't chosen".

Mr Johnson has pledged £50 million for Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles to develop the economy of the islands as part of a growth deal.

The Scottish Government said it will invest the same amount in the islands, meaning every area in Scotland will now receive funding from the joint UK and Scottish government initiatives.

Ahead of the visit, the Prime Minister said: "When I stood on the steps of Downing Street one year ago, I pledged to be a Prime Minister for every corner of the United Kingdom.

"Whether you are from East Kilbride or Dumfries, Motherwell or Paisley, I promised to level up across Britain and close the opportunity gap.

"The last six months have shown exactly why the historic and heartfelt bond that ties the four nations of our country together is so important and the sheer might of our union has been proven once again."

Prime Minister Boris Johnson will talk up the importance of staying united. Credit: PA

The Prime Minister's visit comes after a surge in support for Scottish independence in recent months, according to polls, with two Panelbase surveys reporting 54% of respondents would like to see Scotland split from the UK.

The same polls predicted the SNP will win a majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament at next year's election.

Then prime minister David Cameron agreed to stage the independence vote in 2014 after the SNP won a majority at Holyrood in the 2011 election, however Mr Johnson has repeatedly ruled out another referendum.

Ahead of Thursday's visit, the Prime Minister praised the work of the armed forces in running mobile coronavirus testing centres in Scotland and providing air transfers support.

He added: "The UK Treasury stepped in to save the jobs of a third of Scotland's entire workforce and kept the wolves at bay for tens of thousands of Scottish businesses.

"More than ever, this shows what we can achieve when we stand together, as one United Kingdom."

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted: "I welcome the PM to Scotland today.

"One of the key arguments for independence is the ability of Scotland to take our own decisions, rather than having our future decided by politicians we didn't vote for, taking us down a path we haven't chosen. His presence highlights that."

SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford said he did not think Boris Johnson's message about Scotland's dependence on the Union during coronavirus would be well received during his visit.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4's Today programme, he said: "I think he's going to find that this message is going to go down particularly badly in Scotland.

"Is he really saying that any other small nation in Europe and any other part of the world doesn't have the capability to deal with the Covid crisis?

"I think the days of telling Scotland that we are either too wee, too poor or too stupid really is over.

"I think what we've demonstrated over the past two months in the areas of devolved responsibility and of public health is that the leadership that has been shown by our First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon) is in sharp contrast with the bluster we have seen from Boris Johnson."