THE beginning of a new year always brings with it hope for change, and I want to take this opportunity, albeit in tough times, to wish everyone a happy new year.

Like everyone else, I certainly looked forward to turning the page on 2020 and ushering in the new year. And whilst this past Hogmanay was far from normal, that sense of hope seemed stronger than ever.

The hope comes from the fact that we are now able to vaccinate people against Covid and the Scottish Government will be working flat out to make sure that happens as quickly as possible. Already more than 100,000 people in Scotland have received the first dose of the vaccine - and that number will grow and grow.

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The Astra Zeneca vaccine approved last week is also logistically easier to deliver - so that is more good news.

Our aim is that everyone over 50 will be vaccinated by the spring, with the rest of the adult population to follow. And we’ll be doing everything we can to bring these timescales forward.

But the approval of vaccines was, unfortunately, only one of two recent game changers in our fight against this virus.

The other was a new, faster spreading strain that is accelerating transmission in Scotland – and even more so in some other parts of the UK.

There are also some uncertainties about whether – or hopefully, not – this new variant might be transmitting more easily amongst young people which is why we have taken the difficult decision to have online learning for all pupils (apart from vulnerable children and those of key workers) for a period. We are determined to get schools back to normal as quickly as possible – but we will not compromise on safety.

This new strain is fast becoming the dominant one in Scotland and that is why in the past couple of weeks we have seen a sharp rise in cases.

The pressure on the NHS is also growing. Many of our intensive care units – especially across the central belt – are already seeing significant numbers of Covid patients. And while the numbers of patients in hospitals and intensive care are still below the peak of the first wave last April, we cannot be complacent – with case numbers rising, that situation will become more difficult too.

All in all, if we don’t act to stem the increase in cases – and quickly – many more people than would otherwise be the case will get ill and die, and the strain on the NHS in the period ahead could become overwhelming.

That is what we must avoid – and it is what we are determined to do.

Possibly the most simple way of explaining the challenge we face at the start of this new year is to compare it to a race.

In one lane we have a vaccine – our job is to make sure it runs as fast as possible. That’s why the government will be doing everything we can to vaccinate people as quickly as possible.

But in the other lane is the virus which – as a result of this new variant – has just learned to run much faster and has picked up pace.

To ensure the vaccine wins the race, therefore, its not enough to speed it up – we also have to slow the virus down.

And because it is now spreading faster, that means even tougher restrictions are necessary for a period.

Unfortunately, the current Level Four restrictions that came into force on mainland Scotland on Boxing Day may not be sufficient to get this new strain back under control quickly enough.

Glasgow Times: A quiet Buchanan Street yesterday, the day Glasgow was placed back into lockdown A quiet Buchanan Street yesterday, the day Glasgow was placed back into lockdown

And if we wait to find out if that is definitely the case, it will be too late.
That’s why I set out further restrictions in an emergency session of Parliament on Monday.

The decisions the government has taken are not easy – and they have tough impacts for everyone – but the priority now, and indeed the government’s duty, has to be act quickly and decisively in the national interest, to save lives and protect the NHS.

So please follow the rules – stay at home unless it is essential not to, work from home if you can and limit your interactions with other households even outdoors.

If we all do the right things – again – for a further period, we give the vaccine the time it needs to get ahead and ultimately win the race.

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And that truly then does lead to better times ahead. The light at the end of the tunnel that we all celebrated when the first vaccine was approved is still there. But to get a clear view of it again, we need to get through these next difficult few weeks.

So while I am sorry to be asking for yet more sacrifice, I need to ask everyone to stick with it, and stick together for a bit longer.

If we do, we will get through this and I firmly believe that this year will bring better and brighter times – and that we will then be able to look forward with optimism to recovery and revitalisation, and put Covid firmly behind us.