Vaccinations are being brought forward for those at highest risk from Covid as a "precautionary measure" following the identification of a highly mutated new variant in Scotland.

The BA.2.86 strain - described as the "most concerning" since Omicron - was detected as a result of genomic sequencing from a PCR sample collected on August 16.

The rollout of flu and Covid vaccines is due to begin in Scotland on September 5, but Public Health Scotland said it is now working with health boards to "consider bringing winter vaccinations forward for those at highest risk of becoming seriously ill from flu and Covid-19".

PHS said this would include "care home residents, those aged over 75 and those with weakened immune systems who were initially set to receive their vaccinations from mid-October". 

READ MORE: Will we see the return of Covid masks this winter? 

The age threshold for the Covid vaccine programme has been scaled back this winter to over 65s, meaning that 50 to 64-year-olds will not be automatically included. 

The announcement by PHS comes a day after the UK Government announced plans to bring forward its own winter vaccine rollout to September 11, instead of October. 

Dr Nick Phin, director of public health science at PHS, said: “We are continuing to monitor the emergence and prevalence of Covid-19 variants in Scotland through our surveillance programme.

"While we are not concerned about the current levels of Covid-19, the identification of BA.2.86 in Scotland means that we are now working with health boards to ensure those most vulnerable to illness are protected this winter."

Chief Medical Officer Professor Sir Gregor Smith said vaccination remained the best protection against Covid, adding: “Work is ongoing to understand the new Covid-19 variant BA.2.86 more fully, however as a precautionary measure, vaccination of people at highest risk such as care home residents and people aged 75 and over is being brought forward.”

READ MORE: Hundreds of hospital wards closed in Scotland due to Covid outbreaks

Surveillance has already detected the BA2.86 strain in England and several other countries including Denmark, the US and Israel. 

The variant is currently considered to be an offshoot of the Omicron lineage which first emerged at the end of 2021.

However, the sheer number of new mutations found on its spike protein - more than 30 - has led to speculation that it may be eventually classified as a new form of Covid, most likely Pi, under the WHO's Greek letter naming system.

There is no evidence at this point that the variant causes more severe disease, but monitoring is ongoing around the world and several scientists have said they expect that its mutations will make it more transmissible and immune evasive - potentially triggering an upsurge in infections.

ANALYSIS: Covid waves, new variants and the winter ahead 

The BA.2.86 strain has been detected among people in several countries who have no recent travel history, suggesting that it has already spread widely.

However, surveillance of the virus has been significantly scaled back around the globe since the height of the pandemic, including in the UK where the household Covid survey - the most accurate gauge of its spread - ended in March.

Referring to 2021 - when Omicron replaced Delta as the dominant Covid variant - Professor Paul Hunter, a public health expert at the University of East Anglia, said: "It's not possible to say for certain, but when we had a variant with so many mutations once before, it spread very rapidly.

"The existing vaccines will probably still do a very good job of protecting against severe disease.

"Whether they do as good a job at protecting against infection we'll have to wait and see, but with the number of mutations that we've got it's probable that they won't."

The latest developments come as NHS Scotland stepped down routine Covid testing on August 30, with frontline hospital staff experiencing possible Covid symptoms no longer entitled to free tests. 

Routine Covid testing of immunosuppressed patients prior to elective surgery has also been dropped. 

READ MORE: 'Covid's not over' - Why some Scots are still shielding 

The Herald revealed at the weekend that hundreds of hospital wards have been forced to close so far this year due to Covid outbreaks, exceeding by around two and a half times the number of closures caused by all other infectious diseases combined.