By Harriet Brennan, Contributing Writer
The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly changed the travel landscape, impacting the responsibilities and requirements of employers and travel managers. Both domestic and international travel has become incredibly complex, as countries continue to implement restrictions and regulations, often at short notice.
As lockdown restrictions begin to ease in a number of locations, and certain industries either continue or consider resuming international travel, it is crucial for organizations to ensure they remain abreast of the latest developments. This way businesses can reduce the potential impact of any restrictions on their operations and properly protect their travelers.
Alongside understanding the practical situations with both domestic and international travel, the nature of the requests that International SOS has received throughout the pandemic have been increasingly complicated. For every trip, travelers need five times more assistance support than prior to the pandemic, and we are receiving 10 times as many enquiries from decision-makers in organizations for more strategic advice.
In some locations, we are still advising that all travel should continue to be deferred, while for others, essential travel can resume after undertaking an individual risk assessment of the COVID-19 situation and entry restrictions. Considerations such as travel restrictions and entry requirements, from COVID-19 testing to COVID-19 vaccination certification and quarantine measures, now all significantly impact each traveler's experience. Therefore, the need for intelligence, advice and assistance is imperative for most travelers.
Some of the key changing risks of the travel landscape include:
Misinformation: travel restrictions are constantly updated and information quickly becomes outdated.
Medical risk: a higher medical risk in countries where the medical risk was previously perceived to be low as COVID-19 has put an immense burden on healthcare systems.
Security risk: a higher security risk for many locations, as vaccine hesitancy, economic uncertainty and COVID-19 restrictions take their toll.
While a number of employees may be very eager to start travelling again, others may prefer to wait. Organizations need to start thinking about adapting their return-to-travel strategy, in order to take varying appetites into consideration. To help support the confidence and safety of travelers, communication is essential; prior to, during, and even after travel, it is crucial that managers responsible for travelling employees maintain clear lines of communication so that the travelers and relevant stakeholders can remain updated on the latest developments. Should your travelers face an incident while abroad, or require testing or quarantine support, they may need support on the ground. Considerations such as access to long-term accommodation if a lockdown is announced, acquiring appropriate transportation means, as well as access to medical care for both COVID-19 cases and unrelated cases all need to be considered as part of your return-to-travel strategy.
Organizations need to stay informed and flexible to manage any changes announced and quickly adapt their policies and strategies so that they can keep their businesses and people safe. The travel landscape will continue to change as the pandemic evolves.
Staying informed of the latest restrictions and laws is a crucial part of the travel preparation process. Health interventions such as COVID-19 screening, testing and quarantines, as well as vaccination passports are all part of the new travel environment. Even the most experienced travelers may not be familiar with all the new aspects involved. The requirements for different countries also vary significantly, and the situation is fluid and constantly changing. Therefore, it is vital to stay ahead of the latest regulations and continue to maintain open communications with travelers throughout their trip. Access to information on the actual situation on the ground in a location, as well as assistance when required, is essential for reducing uncertainty and maintaining traveler confidence when resuming travel.
Businesses need to be aware that geopolitics and global economic inequality are impacting accessibility to the COVID-19 vaccines. Wealthier countries have been quick to buy up vaccine stocks, which has already resulted in delays for countries that cannot afford the more expensive vaccines. Additionally, limited social resources, inadequate health infrastructure and insecurity will continue to contribute to an uneven global immunization effort.
These factors have a direct effect on organizations’ international operations. If travel restrictions are eased for those who have been vaccinated, people in countries that are unable to access vaccine supplies may then encounter additional hurdles with operating globally and conducting business travel. Some countries may also not accept or recognize certain vaccines, further complicating international travel for individuals that have received a vaccine.
We have noted that many organizations have used the vaccination rollout as a trigger for a potential return to work and domestic business travel. In Europe, the ‘EU Digital COVID Certificate’ became active on July 1, facilitating the free movement of citizens and residents of EU nations, Iceland, Lichtenstein, Norway and Switzerland between participating nations. The certificate will provide proof in the form of a QR code that a traveler has either:
been fully vaccinated against COVID-19;
received a negative test result; or
recovered from COVID-19 within the last six months.
Integrating information about digital COVID-19 certificates into return-to-travel planning can help organizations to enable a safe return to travel whilst minimizing disruption.
One of the biggest considerations for organizations when it comes to travel should be to have an updated travel policy. A travel policy is an important part of any Duty of Care framework and regularly reviewing and updating this can support with ensuring compliance to the latest laws and restrictions. This could include adding in a higher level of oversight and planning for every trip, not just for those travelling to higher risk locations.
For instance, by doing a more in-depth risk assessment for each trip, organizations can mitigate the risk of missing key restriction information or updates. Furthermore, adding pre-defined medical and security triggers to signify the viability of travel can also be incredible useful; this strategy can reduce the possible risk faced by travelling employees by defining what is considered business critical.
It is also key for organizations to ensure that they have a robust travel security program in place, to support their Duty of Care agenda and take into consideration best practice travel risk management. This includes not only understanding the approach to risk at the organizational level, but also on an individual level, and having a consistent approach to support secure travel of all employees.
Preparation is the cornerstone of all risk management initiatives, but support and guidance are also required for the unexpected circumstances that may develop. It is important to understand where the potential gaps may be in an existing travel risk management program, and then to develop or update the necessary plans, processes and tools as required to improve practices. This way organizations can set up their employees to feel empowered as they return to travel, knowing the risks have been correctly accounted for in the crucial planning stages before they embark.