After initially saying a referendum would only be held when the “crisis has passed”, the First Minister was forced to admit she wants to see a second constitutional vote within the first half of the next parliamentary term.
Her remarks were immediately criticised by opposition leaders, who said the government’s focus should be on tackling child poverty, the educational attainment gap and the remobilisation of the NHS and cancer services in particular.
Ms Sturgeon and four other party leaders faced each other across socially-distanced podiums in the BBC debate, with questions being posed by a virtual audience, many of which focused on the SNP’s pledge to have a second referendum.
The First Minister said the difficult time the country was experiencing as a result of Covid called for “serious leadership” and an “experienced hand at the wheel”.
However, Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said it wasn’t possible to "have a recovery and a referendum”.
Mr Ross said: “Why are we having this debate about another referendum when we should be focused on the recovery? Why do we have bills in the Scottish Parliament to take forward another independence referendum, but not bills to restore education standards, help businesses and protect jobs?
"None of that is happening because the SNP are focused on another independence referendum. It takes away resources and attention from civil servants on the party’s priority, not the public’s priority.
“The question to Nicola Sturgeon is ‘when will you have this referendum?’ You’ve said three times it’s when this crisis has passed, so when is it? Your own MPs have said potentially this year, others have said in first half of this parliament – when do you want it to be held?”
Ms Sturgeon said: “My aim would be the first half of this Parliament assuming the crisis has passed.”
But she rejected the suggestion that her government had done nothing else except focus on the constitutional question.
“We alone in the UK have established the Scottish child payment lifting children out of poverty,” she said.
"We have just confirmed that for the next financial year businesses will get 100 per cent rates relief. The UK Government hasn’t done that, we’ve gone way ahead there.
"We’re spending more per head on education and we’ve just made an offer to NHS staff of a 4 per cent pay increase compared to the 1 per cent insult being offered by the government in London, so these are the priorities we’re focusing on.
“And it’s because we want to have more decisions like those capable of being made in Scotland that we want to give the Scottish people the right to choose. It’s up to the people of Scotland to decide if we want to become independent and I don’t know what it is about that choice that other politicians are so nervous about.”
She was backed by Scottish Greens co-leader Lorna Slater, who said her party would have a commitment to a second independence referendum "in this term of Parliament”.
However, Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said the next government needed to "focus on what unites us as a country, not what divides us".
He told the audience: "This year has been the hardest of our lifetime. That's why this election must be about you, your family and our national recovery. Not egos, settling scores, or going back to the old arguments."
Mr Sarwar pledged: ""Alongside defeating the virus, I am determined to restart our economy and create jobs, to restore our children's education and look after their mental health, and renew our NHS so that it never again has to choose between treating a virus or treating cancer."
He raised the case of Mary Hudson, a 69-year-old, from Springboig in Glasgow, who has ovarian cancer for the third time.
Mr Sarwar said despite needing an operation she was told Glasgow Royal Infirmary was only currently providing operations for first occurrences of cancer due to the Covid backlog and as a result she would have to travel to London’s Hammersmith hospital to have her operation.
“That is completely unacceptable,” he said. “We cannot have our fellow citizens not getting their cancer treatment. Even despite Covid, cancer is still Scotland’s biggest killer.
“That’s what should be getting us exercised, what we should be obsessing about. That’s what our recovery plan needs to be about, not arguments about a referendum between Douglas and Nicola. These are the things that matter to the people across the country.
"We have got to put an NHS restart plan at the heart of the Covid recovery.”
Ms Sturgeon admitted it was “not acceptable” and part of remobilisation plans that were underway was to tackle cancer treatment backlogs
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said he wanted “to spend every single day of the next Parliament putting recovery first”.
He said: "That means cutting mental health waiting times, helping young people bounce back in education, creating jobs and taking action on the climate. It’s not the moment for another referendum.
"I will put those exhausting divisions behind us and work to bring the country together, to put recovery first.
Ms Sturgeon said she had done her “best – every single day – to lead us through this pandemic” and hoped voters would re-elect her for “continued strong leadership”.
"Covid is not over yet – we need an experienced hand at the wheel,” she said.
“Bold policies to drive our recovery – a new national care service, a young persons’ guarantee, more affordable homes, action to tackle climate change and end child poverty.
"And, when the crisis has passed, a choice on independence, so that decisions about our future lie here in Scotland, not with Boris Johnson at Westminster."
After the debate polling expert, Professor John Curtice said it had been “fascinating” that no matter the topic discussed, the leaders “kept on bringing whatever question they had been tossed, whether it was about climate change, whether it was about the economy, back to this question as to whether or not indeed Scotland should be concentrating on a referendum”.
He said: "There was this constant backgrounding throughout the evening of whether or not there should be a referendum or not.
"I think tonight just for me clearly emphasises the way in which actually the constitutional question is going to dominate this campaign, despite the preferences that people [have] ... the truth is at the end of the day Douglas Ross is wanting to talk about the constitutional question just as much as Nicola Sturgeon is.
"But equally, however, what we did not get anything of this evening was a discussion about the merits or otherwise of Scotland becoming an independent country.
"We're still having a debate around the tactics of whether or not we hold a referendum without coming to the substance of the issue of whether it's a good idea.
"To some degree I think it's a waste of time about politicians simply trying to talk about the tactics because basically the answer of 'does Scotland want a referendum' depends on whether you're a yes or a no voter.”
Commenting on his fellow co-leader’s peformance, Scottish Green Patrick Harvie said: “This was Lorna's first TV debate, but she has shown that she is a terrific new voice in Scottish politics.
"She set out the stakes at this election and called out those who have nothing to offer, but stopping Scotland having a say over our future. Lorna’s fresh energy stood out against experienced politicians to highlight our positive vision for Scotland’s future by investing in a green recovery and addressing the climate emergency.”
And SNP depute leader Keith Brown said: “What the first leaders’ debate of this election campaign showed is that Nicola Sturgeon is simply the only credible candidate for First Minister, and the SNP has the positive vision necessary to take Scotland forward.”