Six cases of the Omicron variant of coronavirus have been confirmed in Scotland, Scottish health officials have said. It trebles the number of cases found around the UK, as ministers face calls for tougher rules on mask use and travel tests.
Four cases are in the Lanarkshire area, with two found in the Greater Glasgow and Clyde area, Scotland’s health department said in a statement. The three cases identified before this had all been in England.
Scotland’s health secretary, Humza Yousaf, said officials would undertake enhanced contact tracing to try to track down the origin of the outbreak, and identify people the six had been in contact with.
The junior UK health minister Edward Argar told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the news was not unexpected.
He said: “We’ve been clear since we first knew about this new variant that we would expect to see the number of cases rise, and I think what we’re seeing in Scotland reflects that. That’s in the nature of the virus.”
It comes as new restrictions are imposed this week in an attempt to limit the spread of the variant, first identified in South Africa, which scientists fear could be highly transmissible and might evade some vaccine protections.
Ten southern African countries have been placed on the travel red list, while England has reimposed mandatory mask use for public transport, shops, and for secondary school pupils in communal areas, to begin from Tuesday.
Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, said masks should be used more generally when people were mixing indoors, arguing that Boris Johnson’s repeated avoidance of wearing a mask had made encouragement and enforcement more difficult.
“We know the prime minister has undermined his own message in the past, but we need clarity so that people can do the right thing,” she told Sky News.
Rayner also repeated Labour’s calls for a resumption of the previous system of people needing a negative Covid test before, rather than two days after, being allowed to travel to the UK. “What we’re saying is that people should have a test before they come into the country – wherever they are they should be tested before they come into the United Kingdom.”
Speaking earlier, Argar confirmed that the government’s vaccines watchdog is expected to set out plans later on Monday for the booster vaccines programme to be rapidly expanded, in an attempt to offer more protection.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) which held an emergency meeting over the weekend, is expected to advise the use of boosters for younger people, and could also recommend a cut in the current six-month wait between second and booster doses, it is understood.
Argar reiterated comments on Sunday by Sajid Javid, the health secretary, that ministers were hopeful that what he called “swift, precautionary steps” would mean no extra measures would be needed to combat the new variant.
Asked if the government might tighten up the rules even further in the next three weeks, the current period in which the new restrictions are in force, Argar told Sky News: “It’s not something I’m anticipating.” Argar said he was “looking forward to a Christmas spent with family and friends”.
Javid has said the restrictions are intended to “buy time” to restrict the spread of Omicron while scientists try to better understand it, and to give an opportunity to expand booster jabs.
Asked on Sky whether the JCVI would expand boosters to all adults over 18, Argar said: “I think that’s what they’re looking at, but I don’t know what they’re going to recommend. I haven’t seen the advice. But we’d expect that within the coming hours.”
Nicola Sturgeon was to hold an emergency briefing on Monday morning after the identification of the six cases. The Scottish first minister was already due to warn people to redouble their efforts to follow physical distancing and mask-wearing guidelines in Scotland, and to make sure they are fully vaccinated, in her speech to a Scottish National party conference later.