Dr Sarah Jarvis, MBE
Author: Dr Sarah Jarvis, MBE, General Practitioner (GP)

Sarah is the Clinical Director of the Patient Platform, an active medical writer, broadcaster, and is the resident doctor for BBC Radio 2.

8 min read

I think it's fair to say that for pretty much everyone, it has been a very strange couple of years. As the new decade dawned in January 2020, there were vague murmurings of a new infectious disease affecting parts of China. Within 3 months, the UK was locked down due to COVID-19 and travel had effectively ceased, at least where leisure was concerned. Even business travel pretty much halted – in the second quarter of 2020, UK air travel dropped by 97%.

While foreign travel remained off the cards, summer 2020 saw the rise of the staycation – promptly followed by a rise in COVID-19 cases and a second lockdown. The small number of people who did venture overseas lived with a constant risk of having to change their plans at short notice as new restrictions were introduced in response to rising cases.

Even in 2021, air travel in and out of the UK had slumped by 71% compared to pre-pandemic levels. For those who did decide to holiday abroad, there were seemingly endless changes to COVID-19 testing requirements and huge variations in regulations between countries.

So as the world opens up in 2022, it's hardly surprising that so many of us feel anxious. The newspaper headlines of the last 2 years mean that most of us have heard about the travel woes experienced by holidaymakers, even if we weren't among them. In addition, after 2 or even 3 years of not making regular holiday trips, we're no longer as familiar with the routine of packing essentials, checking flights, and coordinating travel plans with loved ones.

Be prepared

One of the key causes of anxiety is feeling out of control. And one of the best ways to avoid being out of control is to be prepared. That will allow you to breathe easy and enjoy your trip, confident that there won't be any nasty surprises in terms of COVID-19 regulations.

While COVID-19-related regulations for people in, and entering, the UK have gone, taking time to find out about regulations in the country you're visiting is an important first step.

There is no longer any need to take any COVID-19 tests or fill in a passenger locator form if you're travelling into the UK. This applies to Brits returning from holiday, as well as to people from other countries visiting the UK. There is also no difference in testing requirements depending on whether you've been vaccinated against COVID-19. That undoubtedly reduces complications, as you won't need to find a registered test centre while you're away or book a test to take shortly after you get home.

However, it is still very important to check the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) travel advice well before you go. In particular, their country-specific pages provide the latest COVID-19 travel advice for the country you're visiting. The number of countries with pandemic-related travel restrictions is shrinking all the time, but by checking in advance you can know you won't be caught out.

It's worth remembering that if you have a connecting flight, you'll need to find out if there are any different recommendations and requirements for any transit countries.

Testing

In the UK, there is no longer any legal requirement to self-isolate or report your results if you test positive for COVID-19. Nonetheless, self-isolating if you catch COVID-19 is still strongly advised, because of the risk the infection still carries (particularly to clinically vulnerable people and those who aren't vaccinated).

Of course, free Lateral Flow Tests are no longer available in the UK. But they are now available to buy for as little as a couple of pounds in the UK. In other countries, it may be harder to track down a Lateral Flow or PCR test.

So you may want to consider buying a couple of tests to take with you. This will mean that if you do develop symptoms that might be due to COVID-19, you can test yourself – and often be reassured that your test is negative, so you don't need to worry.  It's worth thinking in advance about what you should do if you do test positive. For instance, does the hotel you're staying at have rules, and can they provide support for you to self-isolate?

Step by step

One of the great joys of holidaying abroad is the chance to sample new foods, whether it's local delicacies or popular 'imported' dishes such as pizza or curries, made in the way they were first designed. Usually, this is a treat - but if you haven't eaten out much in the last couple of years, the prospect of braving a crowded restaurant several times a day can be daunting.

A few simple steps will help make you feel more confident:

  • Practice eating out. 'Exposure therapy' is commonly used by healthcare professionals treating people with anxiety. Eating out a few times in venues you're familiar with, close to home, will help you ease yourself into some aspects of eating with strangers.
  • Quiet times. Find out from your hotel or restaurants you're considering when they are at their busiest. For instance, in many parts of Europe, it's common for people not to go out to dinner until late in the evening. In the USA, by contrast, restaurants may be packed at 6pm and have quietened down by 8.30pm. Plan your mealtimes to avoid the busiest periods.
  • Go al fresco. We learnt within months of the pandemic starting that the risk of catching COVID-19 is much smaller outdoors than inside. Make the most of the balmy weather and the tradition of dining al fresco to eat outside. You may need to approach your hotel or restaurant in advance and explain your concerns – they will often be happy to oblige by reserving a table outside.
  • To mask or not to mask? Wearing face coverings is no longer mandatory in the UK (except in some healthcare settings). Wearing a standard cloth face-covering doesn't offer you, the wearer, much protection. However, it does protect those around you. In many foreign countries, it's still standard for people to wear face coverings indoors. If this would make you feel safer, check with hotels and restaurants what their policy is.

Peace of mind

While the likelihood of becoming seriously unwell if you catch COVID-19 is much lower if you've been vaccinated, it is still important to make sure any medical problems are covered by your insurance. If you have medical conditions which you haven't declared – or don't have specialist travel insurance that covers you for those conditions – you could find your insurance is invalid if you need urgent medical help.

So for peace of mind, it's essential to know that you have insurance that will allow you to access care in any eventuality. And if you have any medical conditions, the best way to do that is to get insurance from a provider who specialises in providing cover for people with conditions such as yours.

The bigger picture

Of course, travel anxiety has been around since long before the pandemic. It's more common in people who have other mental health conditions, such as anxiety disorders or depression. However, there are also many people who cope perfectly with stress-inducing situations in the rest of their lives, but who struggle with travel anxiety.

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