Meet the super-rich skipping the queue for a vaccine vacation

Kate Wills
·8-min read
Mind the gap: will the rich skip the jab queue? (Shawn Kolodny)
Mind the gap: will the rich skip the jab queue? (Shawn Kolodny)

You get on a plane (remember those?) and fly to Dubai. You’re met at the airport by a chauffeur who drives you to your luxury villa. While you’re lying in a cabana by a swimming pool, a nurse in a pristine white uniform walks over to tap you on the arm. It’s time for your first treatment. But this isn’t a high-end spa or a luxury detox centre. This is a vaccine vacation.

While most of us are still patiently waiting for a letter from our GP to get the Oxford, the Pfizer or the Moderna vaccine, some of London’s super-rich are skipping the queue by skipping the country. They’re travelling to places such as Dubai, where a month-long ‘vaccine holiday’ including first-class flights, accommodation and two doses of inoculation starts at £40,000. It used to be that you needed to get vaccinations before you jetted off for your long-haul break. Now, a small number of elite travellers are combining a sun-soaked holiday with a shot or two.

In January the concierge service Knightsbridge Circle made headlines around the world when it claimed it could fly its members out to the UAE for a vaccination. ‘It’s like we’re the pioneers of this new luxury travel vaccine programme. You go for a few weeks to a villa in the sunshine, get your jabs and your certificate and you’re ready to go,’ said Stuart McNeill, founder of Knightsbridge Circle, which charges an annual membership fee of £25,000 to clients including ‘CEOs, entrepreneurs, royalty and celebrities’.

‘We’ve been vaccinating over the past couple of weeks in the UAE using Pfizer and Sinopharm, which require a 21-day gap between shots. We can start administering the AstraZeneca vaccine today in India,’ said McNeill. ‘We’ve got some people who are going to India for the whole time and others are talking about flying in, having the first jab, flying out to Madagascar, and then coming back for the second jab later.’

Since speaking to major media outlets from The New York Times to VICE, McNeill says that the club has received more than 2,000 applications for membership as well as thousands of phone calls, emails and social media requests, and has even been approached by several private jet companies looking to transport its clients.

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However, on further investigation, it transpired that only five of Knightsbridge Circle’s members, who were already Emirati residents, had received the Pfizer vaccination through its service. When ES Magazine reached out to McNeill for a comment for this article, we were told by his spokesperson that: ‘Stuart isn’t offering any further interviews on the topic of vaccinations as you can imagine he’s been totally overwhelmed with requests and has since concluded his programme in Dubai.’ When we asked why he’d put a stop to the Dubai service, we were politely asked not to include Knightsbridge Circle in this piece. Clearly vaccine tourism is a controversial issue.

Gulf club: The Burj Al Arab hotel in the UAE, where some of the super-rich have jetted for the jabAlamy Stock Photo
Gulf club: The Burj Al Arab hotel in the UAE, where some of the super-rich have jetted for the jabAlamy Stock Photo

‘I think everyone can agree that jetting off and skipping the queue for a vaccine for Covid-19 is grossly unfair,’ says Diarmaid McDonald, lead organiser for Just Treatment, which campaigns for fair access to high-quality healthcare. ‘We’re in a global pandemic where everybody’s lives are at risk, so for some people’s lives to have more value placed on them is really disgusting. Firstly, we know international travel is high-risk for catching Covid-19. Secondly, you’re taking away a dose from a local person who probably needs it more and has been allocated that vaccine. And that’s before you even get into issues with defective, stolen or untested vaccines which might be being used.’

Giselle Whiteaker, 49, a journalist based in Wapping, says that she would consider travelling abroad and paying to get a coronavirus vaccine rather than waiting to get one here in the UK. ‘I’m very low down the priority list so it could well be many months before I get vaccinated and I want to get to Australia to see my mother who is in her 70s,’ she says. ‘Me having the vaccine would give us both peace of mind. From the UK there are also a number of countries with good medical systems that are easy to get to. I’d only do it if it were legal; I certainly wouldn’t want to sneak around.’

Laura, a freelance PA based in Notting Hill who asked not to give her full name, says that several of her clients have enquired about whether she can get them the vaccine privately. ‘I’ve been calling around private GPs in London but I’ve been told the vaccines won’t be available to purchase for several months in the UK and not until everyone over 50 has been vaccinated through the NHS,’ she says. ‘For one client, a property manager in his 50s, I arranged a trip to a private clinic in Dubai which was offering the Pfizer vaccine. He’s very well connected in the UAE and had friends who put him in touch with a clinic. He just said he was travelling there for work, which he does regularly anyway. It was pretty straightforward. If people can take pressure off the NHS by paying to do it privately, then why not?’

In the US, doctors claim that some of Hollywood’s super-rich are trying to bribe their way to the top of the vaccine list. Beverly Hills doctor Robert Huizenga says he has been offered in excess of $10,000 to give one high-profile client their coronavirus shot. ‘We’ve been offered bribes. We see people taking planes to every location,’ he says. ‘We’ve seen people try to get into the healthcare profession or on staff [lists] at nursing homes so they qualify for an early vaccine. One tycoon in his early 40s even claimed he was his elderly mother’s carer to get a Covid shot.’

Another doctor from Cedars-Sinai, known as the ‘hospital to the stars’ in Beverly Hills where the Kardashians gave birth, says: ‘It’s ridiculous. I’ve been asked if a $25,000 or $50,000 donation to the hospital will help. One guy, an agent for an Oscar-winning actor, jumped on a private jet to Hawaii because he discovered a vaccination opening there.’

Richard Parsons, the 72-year-old former boss of media giant Time Warner, is one of the few ‘Covid tourists’ who have admitted jumping on a jet to get a vaccine in Florida, which until recently had no age limit for the vaccine. ‘It’s orderly and sensible,’ he said. ‘You make an appointment. You get an appointment.’ Meanwhile Mexican TV host Juan Jose Origel, 73, was broadly condemned recently after flying to Miami from Mexico City to get his vaccination and even posted on Twitter: ‘Thank you #USA. It’s sad that my country did not offer me that security.’

Former Time Warner boss Richard Parsons has admitted to flying to Miami for a jabGetty Images
Former Time Warner boss Richard Parsons has admitted to flying to Miami for a jabGetty Images

Of course, medical tourism is nothing new in the UK. From hair transplants in Turkey to IVF in Spain, Brits have long been combining a holiday with a hospital stay, whether it’s to save money or to access a better quality of care. In 2017, around 15 million people worldwide travelled to another country for medical treatment. Vaccine travel is just one of many new tourism trends to develop in the wake of the pandemic. ‘We’ll also see a spike in “revenge travel”, longer and more intense travel when borders open akin to “revenge shopping” when retail stores opened,’ explains Emma Chiu, global director of Wunderman Thompson Intelligence. ‘There’ll also be what’s dubbed “life shopping”, a more long-term trip where people test-drive locations before moving there.’

Those with money and power receiving the vaccine early is a microcosm of what’s happening in the world at large. More than 80 countries have started vaccinating their populations, but concerns are growing that mostly wealthy countries have monopolised much of the supplies that will be produced this year. A recent forecast predicted it would take until at least 2024 for vaccines to reach low-income countries in sufficient quantities to blunt transmission of the coronavirus. Not only will poorer countries be forced to wait, but many are already being charged much higher prices for every dose. Uganda, for example, has announced a deal for millions of vaccines from AstraZeneca, at a price of £5 a dose — around three times what the EU paid for the same jab. Experts are predicting the rise of a ‘vaccine class’ and perhaps even a ‘vaccine apartheid’, due to a widening gulf between the have-been-vaccinated and the have-nots.

The lucky ones who have had their vaccine could soon enjoy the freedom to travel, socialise and go to the gym. In Israel, which has already vaccinated about 50 per cent of its population, hotels, gyms and other leisure facilities are now opening up to those who can prove that they’ve been vaccinated.

The ‘haves’ might even be going on more dates. In the United States, the dating app OkCupid has revealed that those who indicate that they have already received the vaccine are being ‘liked’ at double the rate of users who say that they are not interested in getting the jab. ‘Basically, getting the vaccine is the hottest thing you could be doing on a dating app right now,’ said Michael Kaye, a spokesperson from OkCupid. ‘What a world we’re living in.’

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