Pro-independence supporters hung a banner saying “Staycation – Keep Scotland Covid-Free” beneath the official Welcome To Scotland sign on the A1 last Saturday. Ms Sturgeon insists she neither condoned nor endorsed the border demonstration which she said should not damage Scotland’s reputation as an open and welcoming nation.
But protest organiser Ian McNeil said he believed he had been echoing messages from the top of SNP when he and fellow activists went out to “protect the border” against higher levels of coronavirus in England by urging tourists to “staycation in your own nation”.
Mr McNeil told The National, a pro-independence Scottish newspaper: “For some weeks now the locals up north, including one SNP leader, have tried to discourage tourists from holidaying here until further notice. That’s what the demo was all about.”
Ian Blackford, the SNP’s Westminster leader, shared a mocked-up picture of a Scottish border sign online in May which stated: “We’re shut. F*** off.”
Mr Blackford, a Highland MP, tweeted: “Perhaps not the language I would use but for some folk perhaps it needs to be blunt before they get it!”
Scottish Conservative leader Jackson Carlaw branded the group – which included a PPE-wearing protester saying they wanted visitors from England to “stay the f*** out”, an “absolute disgrace” and urged the First Minister to condemn the activists.
Ms Sturgeon said: “I can’t stop people waving SNP banners but I can be very clear they don’t speak for us.
“I can’t be clearer than I have been – the SNP is an open and welcoming party, Scotland is an open and welcoming country and that kind of protest is not something I condone or endorse in any way shape or form.”
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Her comments came after Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf tweeted about the incident: “If you are a racist you are no friend of mine and no part of the movement I belong to.”
He branded the incident “horrible, reprehensible and vile”.
Ms Sturgeon said: “I agree with Humza Yousaf’s comments about racism.
“The people who protested at the border did not speak for me, they were not there on my behalf and they were not communicating a message that I endorse in any way, in fact I would emphatically say I don’t endorse that.
“I don’t think it risks our reputation because I think Scotland’s reputation as an open, welcoming, internationalist country is long-standing and strong, and I think it can withstand protests of that nature.”
The First Minister has refused to rule out introducing border restrictions between Scotland and England if these are needed to help combat the spread of coronavirus, a suggestion condemned as “astonishing and shameful” by Boris Johnson.
She noted that the prevalence of the virus is about five times lower in Scotland than other parts of the UK and referred to parts of the US and Australia, where border restrictions have been imposed.
Ms Sturgeon said: “I would be negligent in my responsibility if I was to rule out at this stage something that at a later phase I might consider was needed to protect people’s health and lives, but it will be driven entirely by public health.”
She stressed any such decision would be based on public health requirements not constitutional politics.
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The First Minister said: “This is not a question about whether people from England are welcome in Scotland, of course they are, just as people from Scotland are hopefully welcome in England.
“It is about public health and I will take decisions based on protecting the people of Scotland if there is a risk to public health.
“That is not political, it is not constitutional, it is certainly not based on any desire to keep English people out of Scotland.
“Even my sternest critics could look at my record in politics and know that is not who I am and it is not what my party is about.”