THREE weeks ago, I had hoped the column I’d be writing this week would be very different to the one I find myself penning.

I was hopeful that I’d be wishing everyone a normal Christmas and New Year, in stark contrast to what we all went through last year.

However, the emergence of a new strain of the COVID virus – the Omicron variant - has changed that and shown that we are not yet out of the pandemic woods.

None of us want to be in this position but there’s no doubt that Omicron presents a very real challenge for countries across the globe. After everything the last two years have thrown at us, it really is the cruelest of blows.

I know the realisation that we still have tough times ahead is hard to hear – we are all struggling with it emotionally and practically and, for many, it is also very hard financially.

Unfortunately, the warnings about the spread and transmissibility of the Omicron strain of the virus are not exaggerated. It is spreading much faster rate than anything we have experienced in the pandemic so far, and the World Health Organisation has said it is “more concerned” about this variant than any past development in the pandemic.

So we must take steps to limit the spread of Omicron.

One of the most important lessons we have learned since the start of the pandemic is that if we are complacent in the face of this virus, or act too slowly, then it can quickly run away from us.

Failing to act quickly or decisively can, quite literally, cost lives – which is why I am appealing to everyone to follow advice to work from home, wear face coverings and, crucially, to reduce contact with people in households other than your own.

Put bluntly, please stay at home just now much more than you normally would.

As well as helping slow transmission, cutting contacts as much as possible before Christmas will help keep family gatherings on Christmas Day a bit safer.

You should also keep gatherings on Christmas Day as small as your family circumstances allow – and make sure everyone does a test in advance. Follow all the hygiene advice and keep windows open too – not easy in this weather, I know.

Taking all of these protective measures will help us to slow the spread of the Omicron variant while we get more jags into people’s arms.

We face a really difficult period ahead. But by limiting our social contacts, and making sure we get vaccinated, we will get through it.

Recommending that people stay at home and limit contact with others over the festive period – while still being able to meet up with loved ones on Christmas or Boxing Day – is not something that I do lightly. I know that for many people, contact with friends, family and neighbours throughout the whole Christmas period is important, and the sacrifices that we are all making during are often immeasurable.

I also know that the guidance for people to stay at home as far as possible will be really tough for businesses across Scotland – especially those in the hospitality sector – but curbing the wave of Omicron that we are seeing across the UK is vital.

Because of that, it’s clear that businesses now need the type and scale of financial support that was available earlier in the pandemic – for example, the furlough scheme.

However, there are no financial mechanisms available to the Scottish Government to trigger the finance needed to support such schemes.

We are already seeing the impact of Omicron across the economy, and on public services. Staff absences caused by COVID means trains without drivers, classrooms without teachers, hospital wards without nurses and businesses without workers.

So, we need the UK government to act -– urgently – and in the way some other countries across Europe are already doing. We are currently in a race between the vaccines and the virus.

Accordingly, as well as giving advice to help slow down the virus, the Scottish Government has also accelerated the booster programme to ensure that the vast majority of eligible adults are boosted before the bells.

For all the anxiety caused by Omicron, it is worth remembering that we are still in a much better position than last Christmas because of the vaccination programme. Getting fully vaccinated is the best thing any of us can do to protect ourselves and our loved ones.

Boosters give us much more protection against Omicron than just one or two doses of the vaccine.

It is never too late to get your vaccine. Online booking is now open to all over 18s, and there is also additional walk-in capacity in many vaccination centres, so it’s impossible to overstate how vital it is to get your jag.

I appreciate that this is not the festive period we would all have hoped for, but I do want to take the opportunity today to thank you all for the sacrifices you continue to make – and to wish everyone a happy, peaceful and healthy Christmas, and a much brighter new year.