This week, a wealthy couple will fly from London to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. They’ll be picked up at the airport in a Bentley or a Range Rover, and taken to a luxury villa.
The following day, the same car will take them to a private health clinic, where they will be given the first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine of their choice, with offerings from Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Sinopharm on the table. Three weeks later, they will return to the clinic from their villa and have the second shot.
All this will be made possible for them by an exclusive travel and lifestyle service called Knightsbridge Circle, members of which pay £25,000 a year to be looked after by personal managers (each manager has five clients) who take care of their every need. Before the pandemic, members were more likely to be looking for a table at a fully-booked restaurant, a personal trainer or a top of the line holiday, Knightsbridge Circle CEO Stuart McNeill tells VICE World News.
Since the pandemic began, McNeill and his team have been called on to “organise things like exercise bikes, virtual wine tastings and, of course, COVID tests. There have also been a lot of mental health issues, so we have been arranging Zoom calls with therapists, weight loss programmes and nutritionists.”
With the rollout of COVID vaccines around the world being relatively tightly controlled by national governments, the global elite is looking to find ways of cutting the line. McNeill, who says his clients are “CEOs, entrepreneurs, royalty and celebs”, is “pioneering a form of luxury travel based on COVID vaccines”. While some NHS workers are yet to have been vaccinated and most British people face a wait of many more months, the rich are paying to be taken care of first.
Members of Knightsbridge Circle can fly to Dubai or Abu Dhabi in the UAE, or to India, where they will be given the AstraZeneca vaccine, spending time in Delhi before taking sightseeing trips to Agra and Udaipur, and then hitting the beach in Goa or Kerala.
Nick Dearden, director of campaign group Global Justice Now, said it was “totally unacceptable that wealthy patients should be able to use their money to queue jump ahead of those more vulnerable or key workers who have kept us going throughout the last year.”
Dearden said research has shown that many more people will die first if the rich are vaccinated first, as opposed to distributing the vaccine fairly.
McNeill says he is talking to one of the doctors he works with about setting up a clinic in Marrakech, Morocco, and that he has just signed off on providing the AstraZeneca vaccine in London. Knightsbridge Circle’s team of private GPs will provide the vaccine to members over the age of 65, he says.
In the UAE, luxury vaccine travel is made possible by the close relationship Knightsbridge Circle enjoys with the ruling families in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. “We are well connected in the UAE,” McNeill says. “We work with and look after the top families there.”
In India, a similar local network ensures the smooth passage of the rich and famous who avail themselves of Knightsbridge Circle’s services. A source in the Indian government said that any arrangements of this kind were illegal and should not be happening. If they were, the source said, they would be looking to block vaccine tourists from entering the country.
Earlier this month VICE World News revealed rich Canadians were taking private jets to to get vaccinated in Florida.
Knightsbridge Circle has had vaccine inquiries from as far away as Egypt, Pakistan and Russia, but McNeill says that clients have to live within four hours of London time in order to be a member and that the service is only being offered to older clients. Vaccines are procured through local networks and contacts, rather than through private health insurers. Clients fly by private jet or first class and provide “work” as the reason for flying out.
A spokesperson for Eternity Medicine Institute, a private health insurer in Dubai, said the vaccine being provided to wealthy tourists is coming from stocks intended for Emirati residents. “I guess we will have the vaccine in a month or two, but I have no idea how much it will cost for clients to get it,” the Eternity spokesperson said. It is understood that while the Emirati public has received the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine, the ruling families have been given the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Diarmaid McDonald, lead organiser for Just Treatment, which campaigns for fair access to high quality healthcare, said it was “disgusting that the rich are buying their way to the front of the queue.”
But he said it was ”emblematic of the wider failings in response to the pandemic.”
In most of the poorest parts of the world, people will not have a vaccine made available to them for at least a couple of years. “If the rollout of vaccines was organised based on need rather than profit, we would save twice as many lives worldwide. Governments have handed power to the pharmaceutical companies,” says McDonald.
"Millionaires jetting off on vaccine holidays is outrageous – our larger problem is the monopoly system that means vaccines are in shorter supply than they need be so some NHS workers have yet to be vaccinated, and millions around the world might never get the shot they need."
McNeill and Knightsbridge Circle are carrying on with their plans.
“I have to weigh up the balance between making lots of money and being able to sleep at night,” McNeill says. “I’m not going to get a vaccine for a 35-year old who wants to go to the gym.”