WE’VE come a long way since March when we entered into lockdown, and being able to lift some of those restrictions last week was a significant step forward.

Since the outset of the coronavirus pandemic the Scottish Government has taken a cautious, evidence-based approach to tackling the virus and implementing the restrictions that all of us have lived with for many months now.

As difficult as they were, these restrictions were necessary to help suppress the virus and save lives.

We are only now able to move into Phase 3 of the route map through the pandemic – and therefore lift more of these restrictions – because of the progress that has been made. And that is thanks to the efforts of people across Scotland.

The reopening of cafes, restaurants, shops, hotels, museums and cinemas has returned something of a sense of normality to our lives, and it has been a welcome relief for many people and of course, for many businesses who had to close their doors in March.

The freedoms we would all have taken for granted before this pandemic now almost feel like luxuries – and after nearly four months of lockdown, getting some of these freedoms back has been hard earned.

However, it is really important to remember that this easing of restrictions is not a signal to go back to exactly how things were – it is essential that life should continue to look and feel different.

The reopening of retail, tourism and hospitality has been underpinned by stringent guidance for each sector. This has been developed by government, businesses and trade unions working in partnership, and I have been hugely impressed by the efforts businesses have made to protect their staff and customers.

Whether it is one-way systems in shops, having to scan a barcode to order a drink in a pub, or wearing a face covering at the hairdresser – all of these measures are in place so we can enjoy being out and about again safely. They also help make sure staff can return to work with confidence.

However, the responsibility to protect people from the virus does not just sit with business or with government – each and every one of us as citizens has a duty to behave responsibly and follow all the public health guidelines.

For example, we must all now wear a face covering in a shop as well as on public transport, with some exemptions for young children or people with certain medical conditions.

We should also avoid touching hard surfaces and wash any that we do touch. We should continue to keep two metres distance from people in other households. And we should take care to wash or sanitise our hands regularly.

We should all be aware of the guidelines on meeting other households, and familiarise ourselves with the requirements of Test & Protect to self-isolate and immediately book a test if we have symptoms of the virus.

Test & Protect is vital to our efforts to keep the virus under control, and to work it needs the cooperation of all of us.

Now more than ever it is especially important to be considerate of people whose health conditions mean that they can’t enjoy the same easing of restrictions as the rest of us.

The implications of shielding have been enormous for those affected.

We’ve now been able to confirm some changes and I am hopeful that the requirement to shield can be paused altogether at the end of the month.

But even though these changes will be welcome, I know many people will also feel anxious too.

It’s why we all need to be mindful of others around us and remember that we have a responsibility for each other as well as ourselves. And our individual actions impact on our collective wellbeing.

We all need to get used to a new way of living and understand that it may well be like this for some time to come.

In Scotland, Covid is now at very low levels – however it is important to remember that the virus has not gone away. It is still out there.

It is still a threat to life and although we can now enjoy many new freedoms, these will only be available to us for as long as the virus is suppressed.

If the transmission rate increases beyond a manageable level, our hard work will be lost and restrictions will be put back in place.

As we have seen in other parts of the world, when given the chance, Covid can re-establish itself very quickly.

In a number of countries, a resurgence of cases has led to lockdowns being reimposed.

If we don’t want that to happen here, must not lose focus or drop our guard.

This virus remains deadly, and it will only stay under control if we all act responsibly.

It is up to all of us to know the rules and follow them carefully.

We’ve come a long way, but now is not the time to let up.

Let’s stick with it and work together to keep moving forward back to normality.