Health and care workers in Scotland are to be given a £500 payment as a “thank you” for their work during the pandemic, Nicola Sturgeon has said.
The SNP leader announced the one-off payment to thank NHS and care staff for their “extraordinary service” in 2020.
It will be paid to all full-time NHS and adult social care staff, with a proportional share for part-time staff.
The first minister also announced that £100 grants will be given to low-income families who may struggle over winter.
Ms Sturgeon said these payments could be made before Christmas, and would help households “pay their fuel bills and make sure children don’t go hungry”.
In her speech to the SNP conference, Ms Sturgeon said “clap for carers” events earlier in the pandemic had been “really important”, but that the applause “was never enough”.
She said appreciation must be “shown in a more tangible way” through the £500 payment, which would be completed before the end of the current financial year.
She added: “There are no strings attached. Of course a payment like this can never come close to expressing our full admiration for those who have cared for us so heroically.
“But to our health and care workers, it is a demonstration of what we collectively owe you – and a heartfelt thank you for the sacrifices you have made.”
She also urged Prime Minister Boris Johnson to use the UK government’s powers to make sure the payments are tax-free.
A spokesperson from HM Treasury said: “The income tax on these payments is paid to Scotland, not Westminster – and the Scottish government has the powers and funding to gross up the payment if it wishes.”
The bonus is expected to be paid to about 300,000 doctors, nurses, porters, care home and hospice staff, and other frontline health workers, at a cost of £180m.
The Royal College of Nursing in Scotland said its members would be “happy” with the payment – but that it did not address “the years of pay restraint or the ongoing demands that nursing staff face”.
Associate director Norman Provan called for “a pay deal that truly values the skills, clinical expertise and contribution of nursing staff”.
Ms Sturgeon said the payment had “no strings attached” and was separate from any negotiations about pay in the longer term.
The SNP leader also announced payments of £100 to households which are currently in receipt of free school meals, as part of a £100m fund to help low-income Scots this winter.
About a quarter of this is to be spent on winter grants to low income families, benefiting about 150,000 households.
The cash is designed to support those who would have received the Scottish government’s new weekly £10 child payment, which was due to be introduced around now but has been deferred to February.
A further £25m will be distributed to vulnerable people through local authorities and £15m will go to charities, with further allocations to help the homeless and tackle fuel poverty.
The first minister said the pandemic had shown that it should no longer be accepted that problems with poverty and inequality are “inevitable or insoluble”.
She added: “Initiatives like this are not just about providing practical help to those who need it most – they are an expression of our values and of the kind of country we are seeking to build.”
Westminster or Holyrood?
Coping with and recovering from Covid was the key theme of Nicola Sturgeon’s speech to the SNP conference.
As well as the “thank you” payments to NHS and social care staff, there was the £100m winter hardship fund and extra cash for apprenticeships.
Aside from this extra spending – funded from the Scottish government’s share of coronavirus cash from the Treasury – there was a more fundamental question.
Nicola Sturgeon invited her online audience to consider who should be trusted to rebuild Scotland after the pandemic and any disruption Brexit might bring.
Westminster or Holyrood? The UK government or the government of an independent Scotland?
That is the question she hopes will be resolved in a further independence referendum in the early part of the next Scottish Parliament, after next May’s election.
While her opponents in pro-UK parties regard talk of indyref2 as irresponsible while the covid crisis is still unfolding, critics in her own party don’t think she’s nearly bold enough.
They want her to set out a plan B for achieving independence if the UK government continues to refuse to agree a 2014 style referendum.
Ms Sturgeon also used her speech to look ahead to May’s Scottish Parliament election, saying she would seek the authority of the people of Scotland to hold a new independence referendum in the “early part” of the new Holyrood term.
She denied that she should instead be focusing on the pandemic, saying: “Independence is not a distraction from the task of post-Covid reconstruction, it is essential to getting that right.”
And she questioned whether Scots wanted “Boris Johnson’s band of Brexiteers” making decisions for them rather than an “outward looking, internationalist” SNP government.
On Saturday the SNP pledged to extend free school meals to all primary school children if they retain power after the Holyrood elections in May.
Opposition parties have accused Ms Sturgeon and her party of focusing on independence at the cost of other issues, including dealing with Covid-19.
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said Ms Sturgeon had made “a series of promises brought to you by [Chancellor] Rishi Sunak’s spending”, and that the UK government had supplied “vast sums” to fight the pandemic.
He added: “All weekend she’s been talking up another divisive referendum next year, while we’re in the middle of a pandemic – it’s completely out of touch with people across Scotland.”
Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard said the £500 payment was “no substitute at all for the significant increase in salary that all Scotland’s health and care workers deserve”.
He added: “This sum announced by Nicola Sturgeon will not make up for the years of pay restraint and austerity that staff in these sectors have had imposed on them by Tory and SNP ministers.”
Scottish Green co-leader Patrick Harvie also said the “welcome” payment to health staff “must not become an alternative to a proper uplift in the Scottish government’s pay policy”.
And Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie said Ms Sturgeon had “put independence first”, adding: “Everything else that needs to be done in Scotland, the mammoth task of recovery in front of us, all of that will have to wait for years in the queue behind another referendum.”