Candidates hit Covid-era campaign trail in Holyrood election

The Scottish Government's 4% pay offer to NHS staff dominates first day of official election campaigning.

Candidates hit Covid-era campaign trail in Holyrood election STV News

Campaigning in the Covid era got under way on Thursday as the starting gun was fired on the 2021 Holyrood election.

The run-up to the election has been one of the most bitter periods in the history of Scottish politics.

And this year’s campaign trail looks very different from normal – parties can only deliver leaflets in small teams, placards are less evident than usual, and hustings are taking place on Zoom rather than in town halls.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any photo opportunities at all – as Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie proved when he posed on a giant yellow deckchair in the Firth of Forth.

Trust in the SNP has been a key question ahead of the official campaign as a result of the Holyrood inquiry into the Government’s handling of complaints against Alex Salmond, culminating in a confidence vote in Nicola Sturgeon, which she won.

But despite the acrimony over that issue, there was an unlikely outbreak of near unanimity on the first day of campaigning in relation to the issue of NHS pay.

Sturgeon has condemned the “miserly” pay deal being offered to NHS workers in England – as she insisted the SNP in Scotland will “build a country fit for the heroes” of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Scottish Government has announced plans to offer more than 154,000 NHS staff north of the border a pay rise of at least 4%.

The deal, which could benefit workers such as nurses, paramedics and hospital porters, was revealed as the Scottish Parliament went into recess ahead of May’s election.

Sturgeon, speaking as campaigning began ahead of the poll, said: “Politics is about choices, and the SNP chooses to back our NHS.

“In this election we can build a country fit for the heroes who have kept us going every day through the pandemic.

“We have to do more than clap for the people who look after us – we should give them fair pay for the work they do. That starts with a fair deal for our NHS staff.”

But any consensus was short-lived. The Conservatives launched their campaign in Aberdeen claiming the Scottish NHS pay offer was an election bribe.

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross urged pro-UK voters to “rediscover that Better Together spirit”, as he kicked off the party’s campaign in the north-east.

He called on voters who are against another independence referendum to support his party, regardless of their affiliation, as he pitched the Tories as the only ones able to stop an SNP majority.

Ross repeatedly refused to say what he thought would be a positive result for his party on May 6, saying he did not want to “limit his ambitions”.

He also said his offer of an alliance with Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar still stands and will do so throughout the campaign, in a bid to avert an SNP majority.

Sarwar, however, has ruled out working with the Tories.

Instead, he pledged to put plans for the coronavirus recovery “front and centre” in the election campaign.

He said it must be the key issue for debate over the next six weeks, as Scots prepare to go to the polls amid the ongoing pandemic.

Sarwar condemned his SNP and Tory rivals, insisting neither party would be able to build the recovery.

He also claimed Sturgeon’s SNP has independence as its “one priority” while the Conservatives want to return to the “failed system” in place before the Covid-19 crisis.

Speaking on the first day of campaigning, Sarwar pledged: “I will be a leader that focuses on what unites us as a country, not what divides us.

“We can’t come through Covid and go back to the old arguments. Instead I will be focusing on delivering a national recovery plan, and I want to unite Scotland around a national recovery plan that is going to build a fairer and stronger Scotland.”

Meanwhile, Rennie turned his focus on education and said teachers should have a minimum starting salary of £30,000, with a further premium paid to those working in deprived communities.

Rennie also suggested three-year deals for new recruits as they enter the classroom, instead of the 12-month probationary period.

Rennie called for changes to be made as part of a “bounce back” plan his party is putting forward to help education recover from the disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Upping the starting salary for new teachers will help recruit some of the best graduates to the profession, Rennie argued.

On the first day of the campaign, the Scottish Greens called for the Scottish Government to double the new Scottish Child Payment from £10 per week per child to £20.

“This would be just the first step of creating a new Scotland that protects human rights and doesn’t allow anyone to fall into dire straits,” the party’s co-leader Patrick Harvie said.

“Fairness is a crucial part of a green recovery, which is why we’re asking people to vote like our future depends on it.”

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