Boris Johnson is flying into a storm of protest with a visit to Scotland that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon claims is not an essential journey.
The prime minister is heading to Scotland on a one-day trip aimed at highlighting the value of the United Kingdom in fighting the coronavirus pandemic.
The PM’s controversial visit is part of a Tory fightback against polls suggesting growing support for independence and Ms Sturgeon’s threat to hold an advisory referendum.
“The people of the UK have stood together during this pandemic,” Mr Johnson declared ahead of his visit. “From our doctors and nurses in our hospitals to our shop workers, scientists, lorry drivers and teachers.”
And in a claim that will be hotly disputed by the Scottish National Party, he said: “Working together as one truly United Kingdom is the best way to build our COVID recovery.”
But earlier Ms Sturgeon, who has imposed a stay-at-home lockdown in Scotland, said the PM’s visit was not essential and political leaders should abide by the same rules as they ask of the general public.
Speaking at her daily COVID-19 briefing, she said: “We are living in a global pandemic and every day I stand and look down the camera and say ‘don’t travel unless it is essential, work from home if you possibly can’.
“That has to apply to all of us. People like me and Boris Johnson have to be in work for reasons people understand, but we don’t have to travel across the UK. We have a duty to lead by example.”
The first minister revealed that her team had suggested she visit a mass vaccination centre in Aberdeen in the coming weeks, but she had questioned whether the journey was genuinely essential.
“If I’m standing here every day saying to all of you watching: ‘don’t leave your house unless it is essential’, I have a duty to subject myself to that same discipline and decision making,” she said.
“I would say me travelling from Edinburgh to Aberdeen to visit a vaccine centre is not essential – Boris Johnson travelling from London to wherever in Scotland to do the same is not essential.
“If we’re asking other people to abide by that then I’m sorry, I think it’s incumbent on us to do likewise.”
Defending the prime minister’s trip, his official spokesman said: “It remains the fact that it is a fundamental role of the PM to be the physical representative of the UK government.
“It’s right that he is visible and accessible to businesses, communities and the public across all parts of the UK, especially during the pandemic.”
And in the Commons, the Scotland Secretary Alister Jack told MPs: “The prime minister is the prime minister of the United Kingdom, and wherever he needs to go in his vital work against this pandemic, he will go.”
Earlier this month, after travelling more than 100 miles to a vaccination centre in Bristol during lockdown, Mr Johnson was asked why he made the trip while his government was telling the public to stay at home.
“I have come because it’s part of my job,” he said. “And the guidance also says that you should go to work and do your job normally if you absolutely have to.
“I think it is essential that I explain to the public what we are doing to roll out the mass vaccination centres.”
Speaking about his visit to Scotland, the PM said: “The great benefits of cooperation across the whole of the UK have never been clearer than since the beginning of this pandemic.
“We have pulled together to defeat the virus, providing £8.6bn to the Scottish government to support public services whilst also protecting the jobs of more than 930,000 citizens in Scotland.
“We have a vaccine programme developed in labs in Oxford being administered across the United Kingdom by our armed forces, who are helping to establish 80 new vaccine centres across Scotland.
“That’s how we are delivering for the people of Scotland so we can ensure the strongest possible recovery from the virus.
“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.”
Over three nights Sky News will host a series of special programmes examining the UK’s response to the pandemic.
Watch COVID Crisis: Learning the Lessons at 8pm on 9, 10 and 11 February.