There are growing concerns that the emergence of the Omicron variant will once again impact the ability for IPMI policyholders to access vital diagnostic tests and non-urgent care.

The new variant, which is feared to be far more transmissible than previous strains, has prompted a rapid reaction from governments and organisations across the world.

This week the World Health Organization (WHO) warned the variant is a major concern.

Its expert advisers said initial data points to the Omicron variant as being more transmissible than the Delta strain and reduces vaccine efficacy, but causes less severe symptoms.

Currently the Delta variant, first identified in India earlier this year, is responsible for most of the world’s coronavirus infections.

However, in the space of the month since its discovery in South Africa the WHO said Omicron had spread to 63 countries as of 9 December.

The faster transmission was noted in South Africa, where Delta is less prevalent, and in Britain, where Delta is the dominant strain.

But the organisation has stressed that a lack of data meant it could not say if Omicron’s rate of transmission was because it was less prone to immune responses, higher transmissibility, or a combination of both.

Early evidence suggests Omicron causes “a reduction in vaccine efficacy against infection and transmission”, the WHO said in a technical brief.

“Given the current available data, it is likely that Omicron will outpace the Delta variant where community transmission occurs,” it added.

Omicron infections have so far caused “mild” illness or asymptomatic cases, but the WHO said the data was insufficient to establish the variant’s clinical severity.

Movement restrictions between many countries have been reimposed which has not only restricted the ability for staff to accept new roles internationally but also restricted the ability of expats and their families to return to their native countries leaving them in need of extended IPMI coverage.

As highlighted by the WHO, the biggest unknown for the world’s scientific community is not the speed of infection but the severity of the strain once infected.

Growing evidence that current vaccines are less effective against Omicron has also prompted a move to provide enhanced vaccinations with evidence that the booster shots will impact the severity of any infection. It has led to the announcement of rapid and comprehensive vaccine rollouts across the world. In the UK, the government has unveiled plans to increase the number of booster vaccines delivered to 1 million per day.

Other countries, including Thailand and South Korea, have also announced the increase in vaccine rollouts with more nations set to follow suit.

However, the UK has recognised that the need to increase the number of vaccines administered will have a knock on effect. It has admitted that to deliver on it will require capacity for other non-COVID treatments to be reduced as greater numbers of staff are deployed staff to the vaccine efforts.

For the IPMI market, the shift by global health services back to the fight giant COVID will undoubtedly result in the cancellation or postponement of non-urgent procedures but is also likely to put pressure on the ability to conduct diagnostic tests for other life threatening illnesses.

Over the past two years there has been a growing concern from the IPMI market over the backlog of procedures and fears that clients who have been unable to access early diagnosis for serious health issues will require far more extensive treatment when they are finally able to access the necessary tests.

The concern remains that, once again, the IPMI market is set to face a period with ever more limited ability to provide the medical treatments required by members with the resultant surge if and when the impact of the pandemic lessens.

Brokers too have been vocal on the issue with concerns around under insurance. There is the potential, some have claimed, for the more extensive treatment that might be required as and when things return to a more normalized state, to result in some benefit limits being insufficient for the care provided.