Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson walks next to a Typhoon fighter jet at RAF Lossiemouth, during a visit to the Highlands…
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson walks next to a Typhoon fighter jet at RAF Lossiemouth, during a visit to the Highlands and Northern Isles of Scotland, in Moray, Scotland, Britain July 23, 2020. Andrew Milligan/Pool via REUTERS

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited Scotland Thursday, saying crises like the COVID-19 pandemic illustrate the "strength of the union" as new polls show rising support for a new independence referendum in the semi-autonomous nation. 

Speaking to reporters as he arrived in Scotland’s Orkney islands, Johnson said he was there to show how strong the merits of the union between Britain and Scotland are in a crisis like the pandemic, not just in terms of health care, but also in working together to help the economy recover.  

But Johnson’ handling of the pandemic, along with his strong support for Brexit have strained ties with Scotland, as well as Wales and Northern Ireland. 

On her Twitter account, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who was not expected to meet Johnson, welcomed the prime minister. But she added that his presence highlights one of the key arguments for Scottish independence: “Having politicians we didn’t vote for taking us down a path we haven’t chosen.”  

Sturgeon’s ruling Scottish National Party has accused Johnson of muddling the messaging on coronavirus and decided to implement its own lockdown strategy independently of London. Sturgeon advocated the use of face coverings much earlier in the pandemic.  

Johnson's government is only making it compulsory to do so when shopping in England beginning Friday. Johnson said the new mask rule was implemented in response to increasing scientific evidence that even rudimentary face masks can help prevent coronavirus transmission. 

Scotland voted in 2014 to remain part of the United Kingdom, but while support for independence appears on the rise, polling shows it remains deeply split over the issue.