The new Omicron variant of Covid-19 may already be in Northern Ireland, the Stormont health minister has said.
Cases of the new strain have been confirmed in England and Scotland, while Irish Health Minister Stephen Donnelly has said it is “likely” that it is already in Ireland
Robin Swann told the Northern Ireland Assembly that, while there are currently no confirmed cases of Omicron in the region, that is “highly likely” to change in the coming days.
He told MLAs that, while there is limited evidence of the impact of the new variant, there are concerns around the potential for it to be resistant to vaccines and more transmissible.
“At this particular moment, there have been no confirmed cases of the Omicron variant identified in Northern Ireland, but it is highly likely that this position will change in the coming days,” he said.
“The Public Health Agency (PHA) is undertaking detailed risk assessments of some returning travellers from red-listed countries and is advising on any immediate public health actions which are required to slow the introduction of this variant and to limit its spread in Northern Ireland.
“In light of the cases identified in England and Scotland, it is to be expected that there may already be cases of the variant in Northern Ireland.”
Mr Swann said all new international arrivals into Northern Ireland will have to undergo a PCR test.
“All arrivals into Northern Ireland from non-red list countries, including those who are fully vaccinated, will now be required to self-isolate for 10 days unless they receive a negative test result, with a PCR test to be undertaken on or before day two,” he said.
“We will keep all these arrangements under review and will consider what additional measures may be necessary in coming days.”
Mr Swann said the Delta variant remains the predominant strain in Northern Ireland, and urged people to take measures against it, such as having a vaccination.
He added that, while the new variant is “undoubtedly concerning”, this is “not a time for either panic or despair”.
“I am very conscious of the toll this pandemic has taken on the mental wellbeing of our citizens, as well the devastating impact on the physical health of so many,” he said.
“We need to be aware of that, to keep looking after each other. To be positive and determined about the actions we all can take. To convey a message of hope, not despair.”
A further four deaths of patients who had previously tested positive for Covid-19 and another 1,464 cases of the virus were notified on Monday.
On Monday morning, there were 340 Covid positive patients in hospital, of whom 28 were in intensive care.