IN the past week life has possibly felt closer to normal than at any time since before lockdown, as children and young people started to return to school after months at home.

It was heartening to see the photos on social media of kids in their school uniforms, excited to be back with their friends – though I’m sure that behind the smiles there were a few nerves too.

I’m particularly pleased for those who started primary or secondary school for the first time last week – they have a whole new world of learning ahead of them.

All in all, the return of schools is a huge step forward in our progress out of lockdown, and it should be celebrated.

However, that progress also needs to be protected. Getting and keeping schools open depends on keeping the virus at very low levels.

In short, everyone across the country has worked extremely hard to reopen schools – with lots of sacrifices along the way – and we must now work even harder to keep them open.

That means continuing to be ultra careful and reducing wherever possible the chances for the virus to spread.

For example, as the school term restarts, more parents and carers might be considering whether to go back to the office rather than working from home.

However, please remember that if you can, you should still be working from home – it remains the safest and best option for many employees.

We are similarly asking employers to keep non-essential offices and call centres closed for the time being, to continue to support the suppression of the virus.

These decisions on working from home and keeping office spaces closed will all have an impact on keeping the virus at low levels in Scotland.

They’re examples of the collective effort required if we are to protect our progress – it’s down to all of us.

As we move out of lockdown into the wider reopening of the economy, we are all enjoying the freedom to socialise that we have been denied for so long.

However it is very easy to become complacent and forget that there is still a deadly virus out there, particularly when we’re back in a café or pub, and excited to be catching up with friends in person as opposed to over Zoom.

It is tempting to want to hug our loved ones from different households and it can be very difficult to stay two metres apart from our nearest and dearest. But it is really important that we do – if we don’t, we massively increase the risk of passing virus on to them, or indeed catching it from them.

The situation in Aberdeen has been a stark reminder of how quickly Covid-19 will spread, if given the chance.

Our individual behaviours – whether it is a brief lapse in hygiene, a failure to socially distance, or meeting more than the permitted number of households – can have a devastating impact not only in health terms but on the economy and our way of living too.

These consequences that Aberdeen is bearing just now – the closure of pubs, bars and restaurants and a travel limit for residents – are disappointing, but when an outbreak reaches a certain level these measures become the only way to protect lives and ensure vital progress, such as the reopening of schools, can continue.

We all have a collective responsibility to do everything we can to avoid a repeat of what has happened in Aberdeen. And as a government we have a responsibility to ensure absolute clarity on the conditions for businesses operating safely, and indeed for customers visiting them.

As such we have now made it mandatory for hospitality settings to collect contact details of visitors, and we have published updated guidance for customers to reinforce the safety measures.

Hard though this is, life should not feel exactly as it did before the pandemic. We need everyone to think carefully about their actions, stick to the rules, and try to limit the number of places they are visiting in any given day.

If we all abide by the guidance it will help to break the chains of transmission while allowing us to socialise and support our local businesses.

Just as we are working hard to support pupils going back to school, we are also investing heavily in supporting wider opportunities for young people.

While a rise in unemployment is one of the major economic challenges we will face as a result of the pandemic, we know it will hit young people particularly hard.

Youth unemployment can have a negative impact on people’s lives for years to come, so we must do all we can to find new ways of supporting young people into work.

The Scottish Government recently announced £60million investment in a Youth Guarantee, which will aim to give all young people access to work, training or education.

It is ambitious and will be crucial to our recovery from the economic crisis.

And it underlines the fact that health and jobs will be the twin priorities of government for some time to come.