WE have always hoped that vaccines will allow us to move back to a more normal way of life, and recent evidence certainly gives us massive encouragement that this will be the case.

There is early evidence that vaccination is reducing deaths amongst the older population.

For example, deaths from Covid in care homes have fallen faster in recent weeks than among the general population.

In addition, the University of Edinburgh reported recently that four weeks after receiving a first dose of the Pfizer and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines, the risk of someone being hospitalised  from Covid was reduced by 85% and 94% retrospectively.

And early evidence on the impact of vaccination on transmission of the virus is also very welcome and extremely encouraging.

Over a third of people eligible for the vaccine in Scotland have now been given their first does of the vaccine – more than 1.5 million people.

Up-take is significantly exceeding expectations and we are moving forward at pace, thanks to the enormous efforts of vaccination teams.

We expect to have vaccinated – with a first dose – everyone over 50 and everyone with an underlying health condition by mid-April, which is earlier than originally anticipated.

Second doses are also now being rolled out to residents in care homes and the staff who care for them, as well as to frontline health workers.

And we have welcomed the interim advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation which sets out its recommendation on the next stage of delivering first doses of the vaccines to people under 50 – they advise that we continue to prioritise people by age, given that it is one of the biggest factors in raising someone’s risk.

Subject to the supply of vaccines, we hope to have offered the entire adult population a first dose of the vaccine by the end of July, which is earlier than the September date that we had originally anticipated.

This all gives us real hope and optimism for a way back to a more normal way of life, and on a sustainable basis.

Of course, in the meantime, we need to get the virus to as low a level as possible and try to keep it there.

We know that’s not out of reach – but we also know it’s necessary to stop the virus from spreading beyond control and causing more serious illness and death.

And it’s also necessary in preventing the virus from mutating into new variants, like those many countries worldwide are now grappling with.

Supressing the virus to as low a level as possible takes time and I know that can be frustrating.

We are all desperate to get back to our lives as we knew them, but this cautious approach means when we do get there, we can be more confident that we will stay there.

The last thing anyone wants is more lockdowns, and that’s why we need to manage the easing of restrictions carefully.

With this in mind, last week I set out the Scottish Government’s overall approach to easing restrictions over the next few weeks, and which also looks ahead to a more substantial re-opening from the end of April.

We have already begun to ease restrictions with the partial return of schools last week – much to the delight of thousands of children, and many more parents I’m sure! I hope we will see lots more children back in school during this month.

Soon, thanks to the high uptake of vaccines by care home residents and staff and the drop in virus outbreaks, we’ll be able to allow more routine visiting again.

I know will bring huge relief to residents and their friends and families, and I am so pleased that they can be reunited.

If all goes to plan, we hope to open up the economy – shops, gyms, hairdressers, hospitality – from the last week in April.

We will set out more definitive dates as soon as possible, as we continue to make more progress on the vaccines and develop a better understanding of the impact of the early lifting of restrictions, including the school return.

Of course, if the data allows and positive trends continue, we will move more quickly in lifting restrictions.

The crucial point is we must be driven by the data decide, and move as soon as it is safe to do so. We must avoid moving too quickly and setting back our progress, so that more restrictions not fewer become necessary.

But by summer I very much hope we’ll be living with much greater freedom than we are today, and enjoying many of the normal experiences of life that we are missing so much.

And I know how just much we are all desperately looking forward to that time.

Ultimately the more of us who come forward to be vaccinated, and the more we all stick to the rules now, the faster we are likely to get back to greater normality.

So when you are offered the vaccine, please do take up the offer.

And for now, let’s keep working together to beat this virus.