TODAY I will leave aside day-to-day politics for an issue which is quite rightly dominating the global news agenda – the coronavirus pandemic.

We must all now prepare ourselves for a very significant outbreak that will cause disruption to our lives for weeks, and potentially months.

This is a global pandemic, and Scotland cannot – much as we would like to – wish this virus away.

It’s important to remember that the vast majority of people will have either relatively mild symptoms – similar to a very bad cold – or will have no symptoms at all.

But that is absolutely not a reason to be complacent. All of us have a role in minimising and slowing the spread of coronavirus, in order to protect those who are more susceptible to serious illness, such as older people and those with some underlying conditions.

Life as we know it will change in the coming weeks and months – but our goal is to protect lives.

That’s why the general public are now being asked to avoid unnecessary social contact.

That means avoiding public transport as much as possible, and working from home if they can.

People should minimise social contact by avoiding crowded areas and large gatherings, including religious congregations and smaller gatherings such as restaurants, pubs, bars, clubs, cinemas and gyms.

People over 70 – and those who would be eligible for the flu vaccine – are being strongly advised to stay at home as much as possible.

And crucially, everyone should follow the latest health and travel advice, and follow basic hygiene precautions – such as washing hands frequently, not touching their face and covering their nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing

People showing symptoms suggestive of coronavirus, such as a fever or a new and persistent cough, should stay at home for seven days – and only contact NHS 111 or their local GP if their symptoms worsen during that period.

Members of a household where someone has suspected symptoms should stay at home for 14 days.

You should also think about who could support you if you needed to stay at home – and also who among your family, friends and neighbours you would be ready to support if they need it.

Like governments across Europe, we have been closely monitoring the coronavirus outbreak since it first appeared. But more generally, our health service has long been planning for the impact of a pandemic just such as the one we are experiencing now – so Scotland is well prepared.

All of the action we are taking – and the advice we are issuing – is based on the best and most up-to-date scientific advice.

This includes, not only which measures we should be introducing to slow down the spread, but also the best time to introduce them to have the maximum impact. If the actions that we take can reduce an unmanageable spike in infections, we will give our national health service the best chance to be able to treat the sickest patients to the very best of its ability – and that means saving lives.

For instance, last week when we said that mass gatherings of over 500 people should stop – this was in order to free up the police, ambulance and other services which would normally support them.

I know that people are looking at some of the steps being taken elsewhere in the world and wondering why we are not doing the same here. The answer to that is that many of them may well be introduced – but at the best time to make a difference.

Health Secretary Jeane Freeman is also leading work to ensure that our NHS is equipped to deal with an increase in demand as a result of coronavirus. This may include asking recently retired healthcare workers and students who are nearing the end of their courses if they are willing to support the NHS, and also looking at freeing up bed provision to increase capacity – not least in our intensive care units.

We’re also working to support businesses across Scotland. Economy Secretary Fiona Hyslop has met with representatives from Scotland’s business support organisations, including the STUC, to hear their concerns, and we’ve established a helpline for businesses in Scotland to give companies the guidance and support they need to respond appropriately.

There will be many more measures we will need to consider as this situation evolves. The next weeks and months are going to bring a change for all of us in how we live our lives.

But to stress again – Scotland is preparing for a significant outbreak of this virus, and by following the latest advice on personal hygiene, staying at

home and travelling, all of us can play a role in slowing down its spread.

Now is the time for all of us to come together and support each other.