USUALLY in columns at this time of the year, I take the opportunity to reflect on some of the highlights of the previous twelve months. This year has, I am sure everyone will agree, been like no other.

The coronavirus pandemic is without doubt the biggest challenge we have faced in our lifetimes and the measures we have had to take, and are still taking, are reflective of this.

The changes we have all had to make to our lives since March are difficult and feel so far removed from normal circumstances.

The restrictions have asked a lot from everyone – and they continue to ask us all to make sacrifices.

As the first vaccinations to protect against coronavirus began across Scotland there was a shot of real hope that the end of the crisis in in sight.

Initial vaccinations were provided to national health service and social care staff, and last week, we began to vaccinate care home residents and people aged 80 and over who are in-patients.

Over the coming weeks and months information will be issued from the Scottish Government explaining what the vaccine is, how they are prioritising who gets the vaccine and what to expect when you are vaccinated.

Last week it was confirmed that a new variant of the virus had been identified in the UK, with a small number of cases in Scotland with concerns that this strain may be driving what appears to be faster rate of transmission.

This is why the Scottish Government has changed the law to allow mixing indoors in a bubble on Christmas Day only. The household limits will still apply – a maximum of eight people from three households but the advice is to minimise numbers as far as possible.

I know that this will come as a disappointment to many who may have made plans and been looking forward to contact with family and friends over the Christmas period, but I know this decision would not have been taken had it not been absolutely necessary.

My mum, Carol, has her birthday on Christmas Day. She has spent, like many of you, a large part of the year shielding, and we were hoping very much to spend time together as a family over Christmas but assessing the risks we have made the hard decision to stay at home.

I have taken some comfort in the words of poet Seamus Heaney "If we winter this one out, we can summer anywhere."

I have mentioned it in these pages before but the one positive I will take from this year is the way that our communities have come together to support and look after those who need it.

The level of community spirit shown across our local communities has been wonderful – with organisations, friends, family and neighbours going that going that extra mile to look out for one another.

I'd like to record my thanks to everyone who has contributed. No matter how small or big, every act of kindness has assisted others in our community and helped to protect them from the virus.

Whatever your plans for Christmas, I wish you and your loved ones the very best and encourage you to all to keep following the necessary restrictions tough though I know they are, keep washing your hands, wearing face coverings and keeping 2m distance.

That's how we protect ourselves, our loved ones and our NHS as we look forward with hope to 2021.