A SECRET report on the Union written by Michael Gove and presented to Tory ministers shows the UK Government “intended to use the Covid tragedy for political purposes”, it has been claimed.

SNP MP John Nicolson spoke out after Gove’s “State of the Union” paper, which was reported to the UK Cabinet on July 21, 2020, was made public at the UK Covid Inquiry.

In the report, Levelling Up Secretary Gove said that Scottish independence was the biggest “risk” that the UK Government faced other than the pandemic itself, adding: “Protecting and strengthening the Union must be a cornerstone of all that we do.”

The National:

Gove’s presentation was hinted at in an article in the Financial Times in August 2020. It quoted now-prime minister Rishi Sunak as responding: “I now understand why this is so important.”

The papers Gove used in his presentation had not been made public until the Covid Inquiry evidence session on Monday.

The Levelling Up Secretary was asked by Jamie Dawson KC if his report did not show the Tory government had been 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.”

He further argued it was his “responsibility as a minister of the UK Government to uphold the UK and to point out from time to time that to dismantle its institutions and its structures would be harmful and deleterious to all of its citizens”.

Public law professor Aileen McHarg said in response to Gove’s comment: “This is a political position, not a constitutional responsibility.”

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SNP MP Philippa Whitford, a medic who served as the party’s health spokesperson at Westminster through much of the pandemic, said she agreed with McHarg and that Gove's claim was "nonsense".

She further argued that suggestions the Union had helped Scotland weather the storm of Covid did not stand up to scrutiny.

She said: “Certainly they repeatedly used the pandemic to try to claim ‘isn't the Union wonderful, look at what it's doing’.

“They give this narrative but actually, if you look at the NHS delivery, the structure and the repeated claim about Brexit enabling [the vaccine rollout], none of that is true.”

Whitford pointed to the vaccine rollout in care homes, which she said saved the lives of vulnerable people and was able to go faster in Scotland due to the separate structure of the NHS north of the Border.

The National: Covid vaccine for the elderly

The SNP MP also pointed to calls for an extension of the furlough scheme from devolved governments in late 2020. These were ignored by the UK Government, until a last-minute extension when England was forced to go into lockdown.

Whitford said: “This ‘look at what we gave you’ [from the Tories] – you didn't give it to us when we needed it. We didn't have the freedom to do what was necessary for Scotland at the right time.

“It's quite bizarre what they keep throwing at Scottish ministers when they have used every single opportunity for several years – not just in the pandemic – to give everything a Union slant.”

Nicolson, the SNP’s culture spokesperson at Westminster, also hit out at Gove and the UK Government.

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“I’m not at all surprised that Michael Gove tried so hard to keep the report which he’d given to Cabinet colleagues from the general public,” he said.

“The report shows that he fears the strength of our independence arguments. But as counsel pushed him at the Covid Inquiry, it is also clear that the UK Government intended to use the Covid tragedy for political purposes. This was deeply inappropriate.

“During this time of national crisis, the UK Government should not have been plotting over the constitution, but laser-focused on how to save lives, and nothing else."

The news of Gove’s secret report comes after minutes from a Scottish Cabinet meeting on June 30, 2020 showed SNP ministers had agreed “consideration should be given to restarting work on independence”. Scottish Tories called the revelations “disgusting” and “shameful”.

Pointing to the previous comments, SNP MSP Clare Haughey said: “The Tories do themselves no favours with their political mudslinging – and today, not for the first time, their rank hypocrisy is there for all to see.”

The National: Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 inquiry in Edinburgh (PA)

Elsewhere at the Covid Inquiry, Gove (above) said it would be “naive” not to be aware that “highly skilled politicians” might “well see political advantage” in the Covid pandemic.

The Tory MP was asked if the Scottish Government had taken “politically motivated” decisions with a view to differentiating itself from the UK Government and promoting the case for independence.

He said: “No, I don’t believe they are politically motivated in everything they do. I think, I have great respect for the professionalism with which many Scottish Government ministers conducted themselves. I do believe their overwhelming motivation was to protect the people of Scotland from a virus."