With the light at the end of the tunnel getting brighter, as the successful vaccine rollout continues and restrictions are eased gradually, our economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic is at the critical next stage.
It is no exaggeration to say that the upcoming Budget is set to be one of the most important. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, must grasp the opportunity and put forward a bold fiscal plan that puts the UK firmly on the road to recovery.
Failing to meet the scale of the challenge with major investment and support will not just be a squandered moment – but it will impact on our economy, businesses and people’s livelihoods for some time to come.
My message to the chancellor is clear: he cannot row back on our recovery from the pandemic with a return to austerity.
As Sunak prepares his Red Box, it must contain the measures set out in the SNP’s five-point plan for the road to recovery.
Rather than pulling support prematurely, the UK government must introduce a £98bn fiscal stimulus – the equivalent of 5 per cent of GDP – with investment focused on creating jobs, boosting incomes and a green recovery.
It must extend the furlough scheme and other Covid income support schemes for as long as necessary – rather than setting arbitrary deadlines – and plug the gaps in support that has excluded millions of people from support.
The Red Box must also include measures to boost household incomes and tackle child poverty – by ditching the Tory public sector pay freeze, making the £20 uplift to Universal Credit (UC) permanent and extending it to legacy benefits. And matching the Scottish Child Payment across the UK.
The £20 UC uplift has provided a lifeline for many – including working families. Half-measures or short-term extensions will do nothing more than delay the hardship, rather than tackling it.
Our NHS has been on the frontline in the fight against Covid-19 and its workers have been nothing short of heroes with their efforts to save people’s lives and provide care. Now more than ever, the UK government must deliver a shot in the arm and introduce long-term investment for the NHS – matching the Scottish government’s £500 “thank you” payment, delivering a pay rise for health and care staff, and increasing NHS funding to the higher level per head in Scotland – delivering an extra £35bn for NHS England and £4bn for NHS Scotland in Barnett consequentials.
Finally, the Budget cannot deliver support or deal with the economic challenges facing the UK without addressing the big Brexit elephant in the room. While the UK government may dismiss and downplay its impact, the reality could not be further from the truth.
Businesses are struggling to survive as they face a mountain of red tape and Brexit bureaucracy – with many left out of pocket, facing costly delays and unable to export their goods.
The UK government must wake up to the reality of their Brexit mess and set out a multibillion pound compensation package for Scotland – mitigating the damage done by Boris Johnson’s bad deal and following the EU’s €1.05bn for Ireland.
These key measures will form the foundations needed to kickstart our recovery and ensure that the light at the end of the tunnel only gets brighter.
This will be a Budget like no other. However, the signs, briefings and remarks from within Whitehall only serves to highlight that the Tories are preparing to set out their economic agenda without having learnt a single lesson.
The health crisis has exposed the inequalities that exist within society and we cannot accept a sticking plaster approach or a return to the old with Tory austerity that has punished millions of people.
This is where Scotland finds itself at a crossroads and the choice of two futures. A choice between another decade of devastating Tory austerity and the long-term damage of Brexit at Westminster? Or protect our place in Europe and secure a strong, fair and equal recovery as an independent country?
The reality is that Scotland has been left to tackle the challenges posed by this pandemic with one hand tied behind our back – with Westminster withholding investment and refusing to devolve key powers so we can take the necessary steps.
The question at the heart of the Scottish election this May will be this: who has the right to decide what sort of country we should be after the pandemic – people in Scotland or Johnson? Who do we trust most to deliver a fair recovery – ourselves or Westminster?
With both votes SNP we can deliver a strong, fair and green recovery and put Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands – not those of Boris Johnson.
Ian Blackford is the Scottish National Party (SNP) Westminster leader and the MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber