THE Omicron coronavirus variant is “galloping through Scotland” and more restrictions may be needed to deal with it, John Swinney has warned.

The deputy First Minister said the new strain had risen from 2 per cent of cases to 18% in a week, doubling every two days, compared to every two weeks for past variants.

He told BBC Scotland’s Sunday Show: “We face a very serious threat because Omicron is frankly galloping its way into Scotland and circulating around our communities.

“We have some basic measures we can undertake, whether it’s around mask wearing, physical distancing, or whether it’s about making sure that we are all vaccinated. 

“But obviously difficult issues to be wrestled with about whether or not we need to do more. The Government is considering those issues over the weekend.”

The Covid Recovery Secretary said the Scottish cabinet would meet and decide what to do next on Tuesday and Holyrood would be updated later the same day.

He said: “If we act quickly and we act early, we have the best chance of suppressing the virus.”

Asked if he was worried about growing public resistance to Covid measures, especially given signs Omicron might be a relatively mild variant, Mr Swinney said he was “very troubled” by the idea that people might think Omicron was a “mild virus”.

He said that was “irrelevant”, because if cases rose exponentially, as modelling suggests, so many thousands of people would get it there would still be “substantial levels of illness and hospitalisation”. 

Challenged about that scenario, Mr Swinney insisted that even a small level of people being hospitalised could overwhelm the NHS if huge numbers were infected.

He said: "That’s the blunt reality. I really would counsel against this idea that we can almost trivialise the impact of Omicron because it might well be a mild condition.

“It might be a mild condition for lots of people. But if it is an acute condition for a small proportion of a very large number, we’ve got a problem in our National Health Service.”

Asked about Government’s shock warnings causing people anxiety, Mr Swinney said he was sorry about that but the reality was “Omicron is quite literally galloping through Scotland”.

He went on: “In the space of a week, Omicron has changed from being 2% of the cases in Scotland to yesterday 18% of the cases. So the doubling rate is just over two days, and that compares to earlier variants of the virus which were closer to 14 days.

“That’s why I think it’s appropriate to use language like galloping through Scotland and a tsunami of infections, because Omicron is coming towards us at a much more aggressive rate and pace than any other variant of the virus, and we have to address that early and swiftly to protect the population.”

Asked about further measures, he said the Government’s three main tools were speeding up vaccination, expanding the use of Covid passports, and restricting gatherings and business.

He also said closing schools would be the last option the Government would implement.

“We want to maintain education. That will be the last thing that we, frankly, close. We want to maintain school age education because we think young people have suffered so much interruption to their education.” 

Asked if social mixing at Christmas could be banned, Mr Swinney did not rule it out, and urged the public to help avoid it through daily testing, masks, distancing and hand hygiene.

Mr Swinney also said there was no current justification to shut the hospitality sector, and that Government measures had to be “proportionate”. 

Mr Swinney said: "On the basis of the information available to me today it would be impossible to justify such a move.”

After Nicola Sturgeon cautioned people against Christmas parties on Friday, the sector reported a wave of cancellations and lost trade.

Scottish Labour’s Health and Covid Recovery spokesperson Jackie Baillie said: “Businesses up and down the country aren’t just dreading the effects of the new variant - they are already feeling them.

“The latest advice is leading to parties being cancelled and bookings plummeting, but the hospitality industry is being left high and dry.

“Thousands of jobs are on the line but the SNP don’t seem to be listening.

“We should never shy away from difficult decisions to save lives, but we can’t destroy livelihoods in the process.

“Whether there are new restrictions or not, the SNP’s strategy cannot rely on hospitality taking the hit.

"They need to support businesses and protect jobs through this crisis.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton warned against expanding the use of vaccine passports.

"The Scottish Government has failed to produce compelling evidence that Covid ID works to encourage vaccination or demonstrate that it is compatible with human rights concerns," he said.

"What's even worse is that because people who are vaccinated can still pass the new strain on, all it will do is give people false confidence. 

"We should be focusing on expanding the vaccine workforce to get jabs into arms and making sure the contact tracing system is robust enough to track down every case and break chains of infection. That's what we know will beat the virus.

"I am worried that Covid ID is a dangerous distraction taking away resources and attention from where it will make the biggest difference. 

"These were introduced to drive vaccine uptake, but now you can present a negative lateral flow test instead, that reason for their use falls away.

"We should abandon them entirely and focus on the use of lateral flow tests."