Dr Tom Black, chairperson of the British Medical Association (BMA) in NI, says the emergence of the new coronavirus mutation, known as Omicron, comes at a time when society is “deep in a battle against Covid”.
The new variant - believed to be the most heavily mutated version discovered so far - has been labelled a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organisation.
The North’s Health Minister Robin Swann told the NI Assembly on Monday that the variant may already be in Northern Ireland.
A number of cases have already been detected in both England and Scotland.
Dr Black says many people will have listened to news of the new variant with a “sinking heart”.
He told the ‘Journal’: “When we are deep in a battle against Covid, the news of a new variant is another blow to an already beleaguered population and medical workforce.
“Our case numbers have remained stubbornly high for the past few months and there have been a particularly high number of cases in children and we expect that, as we have been mixing more, adults will become infected now, too.
“Everyone is keen to have a better Christmas this year than last, or at least one where we can be inside. There is still time to get the numbers under control.”
Dr Black says he hopes the introduction of vaccine certification, alongside other measures, will help slow the spread of Covid and “we can begin to see our numbers reduce”.
“The more we can reduce the spread in the community, the better the chance there is that we can keep people out of hospital and stabilise our health system,” he added.
“In the meantime, I would urge people to get tested if they have symptoms using the PCR tests, wear a mask and get your vaccination and booster.
“We now need to wait for a week to see if the Omicron variant results in increased cases, hospitalisations and deaths but, in the interim, stay as safe as you can by reducing your social contacts.”
Robin Swann told Assembly members on Monday that, so far, no cases of the variant had been identified in Northern Ireland.
“But it is highly likely that this position will change in the coming days,” he said.
“In light of the cases identified in England and Scotland, it is to be expected that there may already be cases of the variant in Northern Ireland.”
The minister said the Public Health Agency (PHA) had established a regional incident management team, which was liaising closely with its UK-wide equivalent, as well as authorities in the Republic of Ireland.
Mr Swann said the new variant was a “serious and concerning development which has the potential to act as a further shock to our health and social care system”.
Northern Ireland recorded a further four coronavirus-linked deaths and 1,464 new cases on Monday.
Omicron was first reported from South Africa.