THE “risk” of Scottish independence was the primary challenge facing the UK Government through the pandemic – except for Covid itself, Michael Gove said.

The top Tory’s comments, which were presented to the UK Cabinet on July 21, 2020, also saw him urge ministers to agree that “protecting and strengthening the Union must be a cornerstone of all that we do”.

Previously, Scottish Government Cabinet minutes from June 30, 2020 showed SNP ministers had agreed that “consideration should be given to restarting work on independence” – a sentence which Scottish Tories branded “disgusting” and “shameful” for politicising the pandemic.

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Under conclusions, Gove’s paper stated: “Absent Covid-19, I am firmly of the view that the risk to the Union would be the greatest challenge this Government needed to confront— and unfortunately it is in no way lessened by the parallel demands of the epidemic and our economic recovery.

“In the lead up to May next year [the 2021 Holyrood elections], and throughout this parliament, protecting and strengthening the Union must be a cornerstone of all that we do. This paper therefore asks Cabinet to agree the need to act.”

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Both the Scottish minutes and Gove’s paper were shown to the UK Covid Inquiry.

On Monday, KC Jamie Dawson quizzed Gove on whether or not his paper showed the Tories were aiming “to use the Covid-19 pandemic as a means to strengthen its arguments for the Union”.

Gove said: “No, I think it’s the case that I’m seeking to make sure that people appreciate the way in which the existence of the United Kingdom and its institutions has enabled us to deal effectively with the pandemic.”

Two days after Gove presented his paper, which was titled “State of the Union”, then prime minister Boris Johnson visited Scotland. Asked if strengthening Unionism was the reason for Johnson’s visit north of the Border, Gove claimed it was not.

Gove was further confronted with pages from his report which highlighted polling showing negative perceptions of the UK Government’s pandemic response.

In the document presented to Cabinet, Gove wrote: “Perceptions of the Government's and the devolved administration’s response to Covid-19 reflect wider challenges in microcosm.

“In Scotland, only 27% of people think that the UK Government is putting in place the right measures to protect the UK from Covid-19, but 70% of respondents believe the Scottish Government is putting in place the right measures to protect Scotland. In Wales, these figures are 29% to 65%, and in Northern Ireland 36% to 61%.”

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The Levelling Up Secretary, then serving as the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, argued there was a “real opportunity to outline how being part of the Union” had helped during the Covid pandemic.

At the Covid Inquiry, Gove was asked if he had been seeking to talk up the Union even in his evidence by repeatedly mentioning the vaccine rollout.

The Tory minister said: “No. I think there were a number of cases where the UK Government’s response was significant and helpful across the United Kingdom.”

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Elsewhere, Gove (above) said it would be “naive” not to be aware that “highly skilled politicians” might “well see political advantage” in certain points throughout the day-to-day management of Covid-19.

He claimed that the Scottish Government had been seeking to politicise the pandemic in order to promote independence.

He said: “I think almost all the time decisions were made in the public health benefit of the people of Scotland but I think the Scottish Government believed that its handling of these matters was somehow superior to that of the UK Government and that people would appreciate that and be prompted to think how much better might life be if we gave the Scottish Government more powers and moved further down the path towards independence.”