Six cases of the new COVID-19 Omicron variant have been identified in Scotland on Monday, taking the UK's total to nine following three cases detected in England earlier.
The Scottish government said four cases have been found in Lanarkshire and two in the Greater Glasgow and Clyde area. While all three of England's previously detected cases had a travel link with southern Africa, some of the people identified in Scotland have no travel history and may have caught the potentially highly transmissible variant in the community.
"In some of the cases, we are aware that there is no travel history involved. So what that tells us is that there must be a degree of community transmission of this particular strain of the virus," Scotland Deputy First Minister John Swinney told the BBC in reference to the cases detected in Scotland.
But the minister reiterated that it is too early to say whether even tougher social distancing norms may be required against what is feared to be a potentially highly infectious variant and its response to current vaccines is yet to be fully determined.
"This will be a worrying time for the six people now identified as having the new variant," said Scotland Health Secretary Humza Yousaf.
"All will receive expert help and support and Public Health Scotland will undertake enhanced contact tracing in all cases. This will help establish the origin of the virus and any further individuals they have come into contact with in recent weeks," he said.
The Omicron variant, feared to spread faster and partially reduce vaccine protection, was identified in South Africa earlier this week and classed as a variant of concern by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
A "variant of concern" is the WHO's top category of worrying COVID-19 variants.
Omicron was first reported in South Africa and cases have been detected in countries across the world, including Australia, Germany, Israel and Hong Kong. Ten countries in southern Africa have been added to the UK's travel ban "red list" in response and all overseas travellers arriving into the UK from Tuesday will need to take a PCR test.
India also tightened its international travel norms in response, keeping all of Europe including the UK on an "at-risk" list requiring additional airport screening and self-isolation as part of actions against the new variant.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had set out plans for compulsory face coverings in shops and on public transport, which will be laid before Parliament this week.
Meanwhile, the UK's vaccine advisory body is considering backing an expansion of the COVID booster vaccine scheme. Professor Anthony Harnden, deputy chairman of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), has said it would be "sensible" to cut the current six-month time gap between doses and extend boosters to the under-40s as part of a planned "boost the booster" drive to protect against COVID-19.
Image: A boy waves the Scotland flag
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