Derek Twigg examines why being added to the list of countries rated 'Green' on the UK Government's traffic light system for international travel is such good news for the Falkland Islands.  

The UK government's traffic light system for determining quarantine requirements for travellers has drawn national attention, predominantly from the perspective of potential holidaymakers. However, while many people are dusting off their passports and scrutinising the small print on plane tickets, in the Falkland Islands the focus is not on rest and relaxation, but hard work and determination.

8,000 miles away from the UK, the British Overseas Territory is known either for its incredible flora and fauna – including 500,000 breeding pairs of penguins – or for the war which saw Argentina invade in April 1982, before the archipelago was liberated by British forces 74 days later. However, 40 years on, the Falkland Islands are not only surviving, they are thriving. The capital city, Stanley, is home to over three quarters of the population who enjoy a range of local services including a primary and secondary school, swimming pool and leisure centre, international port and airport, supermarkets, hotels, a golf course and a hospital.

It is the hospital that has been at the centre of the fight against Covid-19. From dispensing public health advice, to caring for the unwell, to administering the nationwide vaccination programme, King Edward VII Memorial Hospital has played a huge part in helping keep people safe. Due to the fact that there are no current cases, there has been no community transmission of the virus and 94 per cent of the adult population are now fully vaccinated, the Falkland Islands are firmly on the green list.

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However, this is not to say that the pandemic has not had a significant impact on the archipelago. Indeed, the Falkland Islands Government has implemented a range of economic support measures for households and businesses over the past 15 months, including for the agriculture and tourism sectors, which have suffered due to the downturn in international exports and travel. This is not, of course, unique to the Falkland Islands, however it is the hospital – the nexus of the response to the coronavirus – that has had its own specific struggles, through its inability to recruit locum specialists.

In an ordinary year, the hospital relies upon visiting specialist medical consultants and engineers to provide essential care for patients and maintenance for hospital equipment. In a nation of just over 3,500 people, there is not enough local demand for medical care across all specialisms, which is why the hospital relies upon an annual programme of visiting consultants. Similarly, the need for expert engineering support for sterilising and laboratory equipment in particular, is something provided each year by a team who travel from the UK to undertake this routine work. The Falkland Islands Government recruits and pays for these specialists, some of whom also come from South America.

However, the advent of the pandemic and the requirement to quarantine 'at both ends of the world' has led to these visits being delayed or even cancelled. For medical consultants, it has been because they could not take time away from their usual work to quarantine for 14 days in the Falkland Islands and a further 10 days on their return to the UK. For the engineers, also unable to work from home, it was simply not viable to visit during Covid-19. Inclusion on the green list, together with a subsequent reduction in Falkland Islands' quarantine, has opened the window of opportunity for these vital workers to travel southwards. This is also the case for specialists supporting critical capital projects which cannot be delivered by the local workforce, such as the development of a new port facility.

For a forward-looking country, whose size belies its big ambitions, the ability to attract overseas contractors is vital to the future economic and social development of the Islands. Although the Falkland Islands sensibly still have their own Covid-19 restrictions, with quarantine measures and a non-essential visitor policy in place to protect the community, they look forward to a time when their commercial air links with South America will be restored and cruise ships can once again call into Stanley. Prior to the pandemic, 2019 was a record-breaking international tourism season with a 6.7 per cent increase in air passengers and both the leisure cruise and expedition cruise numbers growing by 16.5 per cent and almost 30 per cent respectively. The Falkland Islands hope to build on this success and to remind people why there are so many reasons to visit this beautiful and unique place in the future.

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