Omicron variant may already be in Northern Ireland, says Swann

North’s Minister for Health says no confirmed cases but ‘highly likely’ to change

Swann urged people to take preventative measures to prevent the virus spreading, including getting vaccinated. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Swann urged people to take preventative measures to prevent the virus spreading, including getting vaccinated. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

The Omicron variant of Covid-19 may already be present in Northern Ireland, the North’s Minister for Health has said.

Robin Swann said there were currently “no confirmed cases” of the variant in the North, but it was “highly likely” this would change and given the presence of the variant in England and Scotland it was “to be expected there may already be cases in Northern Ireland. ”

He said the Public Health Agency (PHA) was undertaking “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.”

Mr Swann was speaking as he delivered an urgent ministerial update on the Omicon variant in the Assembly on Monday.

He said there was “ongoing engagement” with counterparts in the Republic regarding the variant and the situation there would be kept under “close observation.”

The emergent of the variant, he said, was a “serious and concerning development” which had “the potential to act as a further shock to our health and social care systems.”

He urged people to take preventative measures to prevent the virus spreading, including getting vaccinated and “making safer choices in our daily lives.”

Further measures

Mr Swann outlined in further detail in the measures taken in Northern Ireland to limit the spread of the Omicron variant.

He said the PHA had established a regional incident management team which was in “close liaison” with a UK-wide team, and passenger locator forms and contact tracing had identified “all recently returning passengers” from southern Africa who had arrived in the North via either the rest of the UK or through Dublin airport.

These passengers were being “actively” contacted and completing “enhanced questionnaires.”

Mr Swann said he had spoken with his counterpart in the Republic, Stephen Donnelly, regarding the steps to be taken in the North and in the rest of the UK, and officials had been in touch over the weekend, in particular regarding the sharing of data on arrivals into Dublin Airport who then travelled North.

“Communication and engagement between ourselves and our counterparts in the Republic of Ireland will continue,” he said.

All positive Covid-19 test results in Northern Ireland over the last six weeks are to be reviewed for any presence of the variant, and any positive cases among arrivals from red list countries will be prioritised for genomic sequencing.

Northern Ireland’s local quarantine hotel resumed operation on Sunday for arrival from red list countries in southern Africa.

Self-isolate

Mr Swann also announced that Northern Ireland will follow the approach taken in the rest of the UK, which required all international arrivals from outside the Common Travel Area - including those who are fully vaccinated - to self-isolate for ten days unless they have a negative PCR test taken on or before Day 2.

Contacts of new variant cases will also be required to self-isolate for ten days even if fully vaccinated.

“We will keep all these arrangements under review and we will consider what additional measures may be necessary in the coming days,” Mr Swann said.

“Whilst it is inevitable that there will be more cases identified in the current context it is important to not only reduce the number of cases being imported, but also to limit and slow the spread of this variant within any local communities in which it may be identified.”

He said that while the scientific evidence remained “limited, it is now reasonably clear that the Omicron variant is more transmissible and it remains possible that it may reduce vaccine effectiveness compared with the Delta variant.”

“In light of these risk and uncertainty the measures will be reviewed in three weeks when more evidence will be available,” he said.

A further four deaths of people with Covid-19 and 1,464 new positive cases were reported by the North’s Department of Health on Monday.

A total of 340 patients are receiving hospital treatment, with 28 in intensive care.

Meanwhile new rules requiring proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test to gain access to licensed premises in the North such as pubs and nightclubs came into effect on Monday, with a two-week grace period for enforcement.

Unlicensed premises such as cafes are exempt from the Covid passport scheme “at this stage”.