Covid recovery plan, not Scottish independence debate, should be the top priority for all political parties – Anas Sarwar MSP

Yesterday brought a huge sense of relief for thousands of families as more children returned to school across Scotland.

Whatever our views about the Union and independence, we must all work together to recover from the Covid pandemic, says Anas Sarwar (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)

As restrictions ease and people get to see their loved ones again, the last thing of most people’s minds is the forthcoming Holyrood election.

But in just over 50 days’ time, Scotland will be asked to make a choice at the ballot box. So yesterday I set out my priorities for this campaign: a national recovery plan for Scotland.

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And at the heart of that will be an education comeback plan for children. It recognises that we have a moral imperative to ensure our next generation does not carry the weight of the pandemic.

It includes a tutoring programme which must be led nationally and resourced by the Scottish government. I believe there should be a personal comeback plan for every pupil, based on a needs-based assessment, and combined with a mental health assessment.

For those young people who have missed out on examinations this year, there should be a resit guarantee with a free place at college to take national qualifications should this be the chosen path of any pupil from the affected cohort.

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This gives a clear signal to our young people that they will not suffer as a result of their age and stage in the time of Covid-19.

And we must support our teachers. The demands placed on the workforce during the last year may have changed, but they have never reduced in scale.

They deserve not just our thanks but our commitment to support them in the future. That starts with priority vaccinations for teachers.

And then concerns over workload must be addressed urgently in the new parliamentary term, with a guaranteed completion opportunity for probationary teachers and enhanced digital training for staff.

And finally, we need a summer comeback programme. Our young people must be the beneficiaries of the opening up of the country.

They should see old friends, make new ones and begin to live a full life again.

So rather than focusing on academic catch-up over the summer holidays, there should be a programme that includes resources for national youth organisations to engage young people with outdoor activities, ring-fenced resources for school trips to outdoor activity centres for all young people, and free access to sport, outdoor activities and culture.

This is a plan to restore Scottish education and to make sure every child has the right to a decent start in life.

Over the coming weeks, I will set out more ideas from Labour’s national recovery plan for Scotland.

It will be the entire theme of our campaign. In fact, we won’t just publish a manifesto – our manifesto will be a National Recovery Plan.

At this election, people in Scotland can vote for what our parliament should be for – a Covid Recovery Parliament where we work in the national interest.

The Tories and the SNP can’t deliver this.

If the SNP gets a majority at this election, we will be diverted by what divides us. And if Boris Johnson’s Tories remain second, they too will talk up that division as they are devoid of ideas and only know what they are against.

They promised to be a strong opposition, but where is it?

The Tories can’t credibly claim to care about recovery when they want to take us back to the old arguments.

As we come through Covid, we face a stark choice: return to the old divisions as the SNP and Tories want, or pull our country together and focus on recovery?

Yes, the opinion polls show us that our country is still divided on the question of Scottish independence.

But holding a different view on the constitution doesn’t mean that we can’t choose to focus on what unites us.

An argument about a referendum right now won’t take one more person back to work; it won’t lift a single family out of poverty; it won’t restart our NHS; and it would undermine the national efforts to recover from the pandemic.

I am going to be a leader who focuses on what unites us as a country, not what divides us. I believe that prioritising the national recovery should be what unites us all.

In my speech yesterday, I made an offer to the people of Scotland.

Whether you were Yes or No, or Leave or Remain, if you believe we should work together on the things we care about right now, then Scottish Labour is with you in this election.

I know there is a huge task ahead of us to win back the trust of the people of Scotland.

Yes there have been Labour triumphs of the past, none more so than the creation of our NHS, but while we must learn from our past, we can’t live in it.

Instead, we must engage with the Scotland of today, so that we have the opportunity to build the Scotland of the future.

I want to persuade Scots that Labour can be a positive force for good in our country once again.

So yesterday was the first step in setting out the work that Scottish Labour can do for the nation over the next five years.

Because Labour does nothing sitting on the sidelines – we help no-one standing idly by.

Under my leadership, we will make a national recovery our only priority. We will focus on creating and protecting jobs, deliver an education comeback plan, prioritise restarting and rebuild our NHS, and protect the planet.

The national recovery is what I will talk about relentlessly during this election campaign. And it’s what our politics should be about too.

Anas Sarwar is Scottish Labour leader and an MSP for Glasgow

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