Boris Johnson said arguments about a referendum on Scottish independence were “completely irrelevant” as the UK battled the coronavirus pandemic.
The Prime Minister again insisted the 2014 vote was a once-in-a-generation referendum and there was no advantage in “pointless constitutional wrangling”.
Amid signs of rising support for independence and ahead of May’s Holyrood elections, the Prime Minister used his visit to Scotland to highlight the nation’s contribution to the UK-wide fight against Covid-19.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said Mr Johnson’s visit to Scotland is “not essential” during the current lockdowns, arguing that politicians have a “duty to lead by example” as the public live under strict restrictions.
Police Scotland confirmed they had received a “small number” of complaints about the prime ministerial visit but added: “This is a working visit in his official capacity as Prime Minister and we are policing the event appropriately.”
Mr Johnson suggested people should focus on “the issues that really matter”.
“I think jobs, the educational performance of the Scottish national government I don’t believe has been brilliant, their performance on fighting crime, on drugs – those are the things that I think people need to focus on.
“But, above all, on fighting this pandemic and coming back more strongly together.
“I have to say I think endless talk about a referendum, without any clear description of what the constitutional situation would be after that referendum, is completely irrelevant now to the concerns of most people who, I think, want us to beat this pandemic and come through it strongly together.”
He told reporters that “the very same people” who wanted independence “also said only a few years ago, in 2014, that this was a once-in-a-generation event”.
“I’m inclined to stick with what they said last time,” Mr Johnson said.
Asked if he would boycott a referendum held without the UK Government’s consent, Mr Johnson dodged the question, saying: “My focus is on defeating the pandemic.”
He added that “we don’t actually know what that referendum would set out to achieve, we don’t know what the point of it would be – what happens to the army, what happens to the crown, what happens to the pound, what happens to the Foreign Office … nobody will tell us what it’s all meant to be about”.
Mr Johnson donned PPE during a visit to the Lighthouse Laboratory at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital campus in Glasgow, where coronavirus tests are processed.
He then met troops setting up a vaccination centre in the Castlemilk area of the city, bumping elbows to greet some of the soldiers.
The Prime Minister also visited the Valneva laboratory in Livingston, West Lothian, where experts are working on a coronavirus vaccine.
There are growing concerns in Westminster about support for Scottish independence.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer backed the Prime Minister’s visit, insisting he had a right to see what was happening in all parts of the UK.
Concerns have been raised that Mr Johnson may not be the best figure to champion the Union, with polls suggesting support has risen amid a backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic and of Brexit, a campaign the Prime Minister fronted, while Scotland backed remaining in the EU.
SNP deputy leader Keith Brown said the Prime Minister’s trip is evidence that he is in a “panic” about the prospect of another referendum.
The MSP said: “Clearly, Boris Johnson is rattled. By branding this campaign trip as ‘essential’, this is clearly a Prime Minister in panic, who knows the Tories are losing the argument on independence.
“Twenty polls in a row have shown that a majority of voters believe Scotland’s future should be in Scotland’s hands – not Boris Johnson’s.”