The new variant, described by Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride as “serious and concerning”, has already been detected elsewhere in the UK.
Health Minister Robin Swann is set to be questioned in the Assembly on plans to tackle the variant today, after an urgent oral question was submitted by the SDLP MLA Colin McGrath.
Dr Ultan Power, professor of molecular virology at Queen’s University, Belfast, told the News Letter it will be “very difficult” to keep the variant out of Northern Ireland – if it is not already here.
He said now is an “ideal time” to “reinforce the public health messages”.
Dr Tom Black, chair of the British Medical Association’s Northern Ireland committee, told the News Letter the most sensible approach is to behave as if the mutated form of coronavirus has already reached our shores.
He said that while he shared Dr McBride’s serious concern about the new strain, people could still look forward to a “normal family Christmas”.
While Stormont’s response has not yet been made clear, the identification of a number of cases of the variant in England was swiftly followed by an announcement that mask-wearing would return to shops and public transport on Tuesday.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid, however, told families they should plan for Christmas “as normal” and said it is “nowhere near” time to reintroduce social distancing rules and work-from-home guidance.
Asked about the likelihood of the virus being detected in Northern Ireland, Dr Power said: “It’s highly likely that we’re not going to avoid it. Inevitable is a strong word but it would not be at all surprising if it does end up here. All of the other variants that have been circulating have ended up in Northern Ireland.
“We have free movement between the rest of the UK and Northern Ireland. Once we have unrestricted travel, anybody at all that picks up the infection will bring it with them.
“There’s no doubt about that.”
He continued: “It’s an ideal time to reinforce the public health messages that we have had right from the start of the pandemic.”
There have been suggestions the omicron strain could evade the immunity offered by vaccinations.
Asked when scientists should know whether that is the case, Dr Power said: “It’ll be two or three weeks before we get that information at the earliest. Those will obviously be crucial pieces of information to tell us whether the current vaccines are fit for purpose. At this stage, that’s something for the health authorities, that’s something for governments to worry about.
“The big thing for everybody to do now is minimise their travel, use masks, social distancing – basically everything we’ve been saying. Everybody can play a role in minimising the transmission of the virus, assuming that if it’s not already here that it won’t be long before it arrives.”
There have also been reports from doctors on the ground in African countries where the variant was first detected that symptoms have been mostly mild. Asked if people should be encouraged by those reports, Dr Power said: “It’s far too early. What we need to know is the frequency of hospitalisation and the frequency of death.”
Dr Black, meanwhile, said: “As our chief medical officer has said it is serious and concerning. We will have to be even more careful than we have been, going forward for the next two or three weeks, until we see exactly how difficult this variant is going to be. Every time you are optimistic about Covid the virus takes advantage of that, so I wouldn’t be at all optimistic.”
Asked whether the public should alter their Christmas plans, Dr Black said: “In terms of bringing families together, there’s a balance between bringing families together for social cohesion and the risks of the infections.
“If I was bringing families together for Christmas, I would certainly be telling people to be careful, and not to be out carousing before coming for Christmas dinner.
“At the moment, it seems to be in the balance but we can still hope for a normal family Christmas if not all of the normal festivites.”