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British Embassies Came to The Rescue of More Than 6,500 Uninsured Brits Stranded Abroad at Height of Pandemic

Two junior doctors stuck in Peru, three backpacking friends stranded in Bali, a nurse alone and a long way from home in Melbourne, Australia… all desperate to get home to the UK but no flights to bring them back.

It’s easy to forget the worry and fear experienced by travellers when the Coronavirus pandemic struck. Thousands of British travellers found themselves in far flung corners of the world and no way of getting home; with money running out and accommodation hard to find.

There was no official record of how many Brits were stranded back in March 2020 when Covid-19 was officially declared a global pandemic. Estimates put the number at anywhere between 300,000 and one million. And one way or another most people eventually got back safely.

But research has revealed that more than 6,500 uninsured British travellers needed emergency government help abroad at the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Peak of the pandemic

At the height of the pandemic in 2020, Foreign Office statistics – released after a Freedom of Information (FOI) request – show that 6,545 British travellers who went abroad without travel insurance needed help from British embassies, consulates, and other emergency agencies.

This compared with 2,623 the year before – reflecting a 150% increase in calls for help. In 2021 the figure was 1,788, showing a significant reduction in overseas travel.

Those who found themselves seriously ill with Covid-19 while abroad were often stuck overseas for weeks, and in some cases months, at a time, just as repatriation services struggled to cope with the influx. Overwhelmed hospitals back in the UK were also cautious accepting British patients travelling from overseas due to fears over Covid-19.

The BBC reported the case of one traveller, Alex Foulkes, 31, a film maker from Wrexham faced up to three months in a small room with three strangers in a Peruvian hostel following the outbreak.

“It feels like being in prison. We literally just have beds in our rooms and the bathroom is shared by dozens of travellers,” he said. “I’m not sure how we’ll cope with being confined to our rooms for the next three months for 23 hours a day.

Travel insurers like Insurancewith faced all kinds of hurdles to try and get people home, particularly those who fell ill or had serious accidents.

The number of medical escorts prepared to travel internationally and carry out repatriation support also reduced because of the mandatory quarantine measures, both abroad and once they arrived back in the UK, making transporting sick patients almost impossible.

Stranded in South Africa

One holidaymaker who suffered a stroke while in South Africa ended up stuck there for almost seven months because of problems with flight cancellations, changing Covid restrictions, and finding suitable medical escorts. Fortunately, the cost of getting him home was covered by his travel insurance.

Insurancewith specialises in providing cover for those with complex pre-existing medical conditions. Brand manager, Sarah Page, said: “It seems that, even at the height of the pandemic, British people were so desperate to travel they were prepared to take the risk and go abroad without insurance.

“But even now, with widely available extensive Covid cover, travellers are still not considering the risk of a sudden change in circumstances abroad.”

Covid-19 policy extensions

Data from Insurancewith shows that, even after all the problems travellers faced abroad during the pandemic, fewer than half are taking out Covid-19 policy extensions to protect their getaways.

Covid-19 policy extensions typically provide extra protection for possible scenarios caused by the virus.

One reason for the increase in Brits travelling abroad without travel insurance could have been due to some well-known travel insurance providers suspending their direct sales – or even pulling out of the market altogether – when the pandemic first hit.

Additionally, many insurers that remained on sale included exclusions for travelling against Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) advice in their policies, leaving consumers with very limited choice and cover.

While overall requests for emergency assistance have reduced in the last year, many of the assistance requests made have been more complex.

With the recovery in the travel sector now well underway, the cover available has improved considerably and consumers are now taking more interest in understanding the different types of cover available to them.

Consumer choice

Additionally, many travel insurers that previously left the market have returned, giving consumers choice once more. Nearly all insurers have adapted their travel insurance offering in some form to be more flexible and reflect the demands of holidaymakers needs in their policies.

This means travel insurance policies now offer more protection against the range of different scenarios that holidaymakers could claim for, giving even more reason to take out protection before a trip.

Sarah Page, added: “At a time when many may be considering booking their first foreign holiday since the pandemic, it is essential that holidaymakers do not risk travelling without protection.

“While restrictions have been dropped here in the UK, the virus continues to cause problems in other countries around the world.

“We understand how challenging finding suitable travel insurance can be, especially if you have a medical condition, and how it could be tempting to travel in the hope that nothing will happen.

“But why put yourself in danger? Travel insurance is there to protect you. So, the next time you book a holiday, we would encourage people to make sure they buy a suitable travel insurance policy and travel with peace of mind that, no matter what happens, they’re fully protected. Travelling without the right cover is simply not worth it.”

And although things are now pretty much returning to normal thanks to the vaccine roll out and milder variants emerging, it’s worth remembering that some parts of the world are still off limits to tourists, most notably China.

So before you decide your next destination it’s worth checking the latest Foreign Office (FCDO) advice as there are still a number of countries that are still off-limits and travelling there may affect your travel insurance cover.

Posted on: Jun 06, 2022

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