Healthcare news across the globe has been dominated by yet another new Covid-19 variant, Omicron. At the time of writing, it is not yet known how serious a threat Omicron poses. It appears to be highly infectious, but that does not necessarily mean it is more lethal or that it will lead to a higher rate of hospitalisations. The medical jury is still out, although it seems cautiously optimistic. In this month’s healthcare update, we will be looking at the new variant’s impact on travel restrictions, as well as some other health-related issues of interest to expats.
Omicron and UK travel restrictions
The UK’s initial response to Omicron was to impose travel restrictions on people travelling from nations where the variant was first detected, such as South Africa and Nigeria. The British government has refused to roll out heavier internal restrictions, and is waiting for further medical advice from organisations such as SAGE. At the time of writing, the UK is heading into ‘Plan B,’ and possibly verging on the introduction of Covid-19 passports.
From December 7th, you must have a negative test (from either a lateral flow test or a PCR test) before travelling into the UK, taken no more than 48 hours before you travel, regardless of whether or not you are vaccinated, and a further PCR test once you arrive. Note that free NHS lateral flow tests are not acceptable. You will also need to self-isolate until you have your results. If you have been in contact with someone with Omicron, you are required to isolate for 10 days, even if you have been fully vaccinated.
The full list of restricted nations is as follows: Angola, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, as well as South Africa and Nigeria. If you’re a returning British or Irish national expat or traveller, you will be exempt and will be able to come back into the country.
If you are travelling to the USA, you will not need to enter quarantine, but you must, again, take a lateral flow test within 48 hours of arriving. One family interviewed by the BBC noted that the obligation to take tests when travelling in and out of the US from the UK had added an extra $600 to their vacation, so make sure you factor this into your holiday budget.
Experts say that travel restrictions work best when there are relatively few cases in the country. At the time of writing, there are about 400+ registered cases in the UK, some of whom have not travelled or been in contact with travellers. At least 21 of those cases travelled into the UK from Nigeria. It is anticipated to overtake Delta as the dominant variant over Christmas.
A great deal will depend on the severity of Omicron. Most South African cases have been among young people and people who have been vaccinated. These cases have been mild, according to all the data, but it is unclear what the impact will be on older people and those who have not had the vaccine.
The UK has had a large vaccine take-up, and medical experts say that when there is a viral variant that is more transmissible, it tends to be a less dangerous strain. Hopes are that Covid-19 is following the pattern of the Spanish flu, and weakening in severity as the virus changes. As with the initial stages of the pandemic, however, the problem lies in the numbers involved, and scientists point out that healthcare systems could still become clogged up, as medics have to self-isolate, even if they’re not seriously ill.
As always, it is advisable to keep an eye on the latest news. This is a fast changing and dynamic situation, as more data comes in on the new variant.
Best countries for healthcare
The Daily Express has done a round-up of its own in recent weeks, relating to the five best countries for healthcare for expats. Quoting a survey from Property Guides, the Express says that the top five nations for healthcare (with two joint places) are as follows:
• Germany and the Netherlands
• Spain and the UAE
Italy’s healthcare system is described as ‘accessible’ and functions in a similar way to the NHS. Germany, meanwhile, has one of the highest numbers of hospital beds per 10,000 people and one of the biggest university hospitals, too. Whilst health insurance is compulsory in the Netherlands, premiums are comparatively cheap, although you’ll be handing over more of your salary than you will in Germany.
In Spain, there is a national health system, but accessibility may depend on where you live, as this is organised on a regional basis, and you may need to contribute to your prescription fees. In the UAE, which does not have income tax, healthcare is based on corporate tax paid by businesses. The quality of healthcare is high, but expats need to sign up – you must have a UAE health card to access public hospitals and clinics.
Travel industry warns of trouble ahead
Travel industry organisation ABTA has asked the UK government for help, as new restrictions threaten to send travel operators over the economic edge. One of the measures which they would like to see imposed is a cap on the cost of PCR tests for travellers (we’ve mentioned above the extra cost that this can impose on your trip).
ABTA’s chief executive Mark Tanzer says:
“Public health must come first, but the government should be looking to soften the blow to travel companies by providing financial support in the shape of grants and the return of furlough for travel staff. We can’t go on like this with requirements changing but nothing to support those businesses worst affected. Not only has there been an absence of any specific support for the sector, but many companies have either been excluded or refused access to the general grant funding – so it’s no wonder that many of our members feel totally abandoned by the government.”
Manuel Cortes at the TSSA union echoed Mr Tanzer’s comments, and said that travel companies are talking of collapsing bookings as the new restrictions come in.