Scottish election 2021: Covid is the worst health and economic crisis of the last 100 years and we need a parliament focused on recovery, not independence – Willie Rennie

I am always an optimist during election campaigns and I often tell journalists that the sky is the limit.

Yesterday my proclamation came true, in rather literal fashion as I found myself strapped into a microlight flying over East Lothian.

It was almost the final stop on a journey that has taken me from the Highlands to the Borders, making the case that at this election voters should vote to put recovery first.

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The pandemic has torn through our lives. Thousands of people died or suffered serious illness. Young people lost out on education and career opportunities. People waited longer for hospital treatment. Individuals suffered isolation. Businesses struggled to pay their bills.

We owe it to them to put recovery first.

Other parties will prioritise an independence referendum. Instead, Liberal Democrats will have a needle-sharp focus on jobs, mental health, our NHS, schools and the climate crisis.

Our offer is a liberal one. At our heart we want every individual to achieve their potential.

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Scottish election 2021: SNP majority '50/50', says Scotland's leading poll exper...
Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie prepares for take-off in a microlight at East Fortune (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)

For me, putting recovery first means an NHS recovery plan and a greater priority for mental health because poor mental health prevents people from getting on in life.

This month the mental health budget increased by £120 million thanks to Scottish Liberal Democrat budget negotiations. Now it needs the full weight of our transformative proposals so there are more local and walk-in crisis services, more specialists in training and the ending of scandalous waits for help.

We want a new deal for social care too with the establishment of national care service standards, with the funding put in place to meet those standards and national pay bargaining so care workers get proper recognition, fair pay and better careers as soon as possible.

To deal with the backlog of lost operations and missed diagnoses, we will set up new diagnosis and treatment centres and ensure that more health services are delivered close to home.

Putting recovery first means an ‘Education Bounce Back’ plan which will deliver extra staff and extra resources in every school. That means a jobs guarantee for every teacher, ending the anxiety about whether there will be a job for them and the casualisation of the teaching workforce.

It means more pupil support assistants, an outdoor learning guarantee including for residential trips, the abolition of fees for instrumental music tuition in schools, and new entitlements for young people to use over the holidays so nobody misses out on activities.

For the youngest children, we will extend free early learning and childcare to all two-year-olds, building on the existing entitlement won by my party. We will also extend the Pupil Equity Fund, again won by Scottish Liberal Democrats, double the Scottish Child Payment and deliver the extension of free school meals all year round for P1-P7 children.

Putting recovery first means taking action to stop a jobs crisis too. That’s why I have set out plans for a job guarantee for young people to save a generation from unemployment, for new jobs building on Scotland’s world-class expertise in clean-tech and green energy and new retraining support for people who need it with grants up to £5,000.

Everyone deserves to be paid a fair wage, to afford a home and use good public services. For many, that wasn’t the reality before the pandemic. The cracks were there for all to see when it hit. I’ve spent months helping people whose incomes evaporated overnight, working constructively with the Scottish and UK governments to fix gaps in systems and save livelihoods but there is still more to do.

Next we need to tackle the climate emergency, perhaps the greatest challenge our species has ever faced. Scottish Liberal Democrats have been instrumental in forcing the pace of change in Scotland, from setting the first renewable electricity targets early in the Scottish Parliament to recently ensuring Scotland has some of the strongest emissions targets in the world (the heightened 2030 target was the result of a Labour-Liberal Democrat amendment).

Now we must meet our targets and decarbonise Scotland by switching one million homes from polluting mains gas to climate-friendly heating by 2030 and doubling the fuel poverty budget, delivering a charging network for electric vehicles that people can trust and new legally binding nature-recovery targets and new national parks.

That’s the scale of ambition Scotland needs.

Unlike the present government, it’s campaigning for better mental health, education and action to tackle the climate emergency that gets me up in the morning. All of that would be at risk if there were five years of rows over independence, borders, the currency and the deficit.

This is not the moment to go back to the divisions of the past. The recovery will require the skills and talents of everyone.

Right now, the SNP are threatening to destroy trade with the rest of the UK through an independence referendum, while the Conservatives have run a dark and dismal campaign, trying to distract from their disastrous handling of Brexit, which has cost Scottish food and drink producers millions of pounds.

No matter what your view on independence, most people will surely think that the wake of a terrible pandemic is not the moment for that. Nor is it the moment to carry on the poisonous and bitter battle between the SNP and the Conservatives and between the various factions of the nationalist movement, which is dragging Scotland down.

Scottish Liberal Democrats want the next parliament to have a needle-sharp focus on the recovery and on jobs, mental health, education and the climate emergency. To meet the challenge of the climate emergency and recover from the worst health and economic crisis of the last 100 years, we cannot have the next Scottish Parliament and the next Scottish Government distracted.

If you support our policies and want to see the next Scottish Parliament put recovery first, give Scottish Liberal Democrats both your votes today.

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