Business travel is creeping back, but at what risk?

The number of domestic and international business trips has started to rise again. But the imminent introduction of a complex traffic light system emphasises how crucial it is for businesses to thoroughly plan their journeys. Charline Gelin and Dr Mark Parrish of International SOS advise

Travel restrictions and intelligence

Looking specifically at business travel, we are starting to see increases in activity in our clients’ travel behaviours from data we monitor in our tracking tool. Global domestic travel volumes in March 2021 have risen to approximately a fifth of their pre-pandemic levels. International arrivals have shown increases in certain locations too. For example, business trips to Qatar in 2021 are already at 20% of their pre-pandemic levels.

This tells us that for many firms travel is regarded as crucial, but is the level of risk being heeded and are organisations seeking out the latest and best advice?

The pandemic has severely affected the security, medical and global logistical environments. As the pandemic and its second and third order consequences affect locations’ underlying security dynamics, for example, they may give rise to situations that require enhanced evacuation, or relocation, for which enhanced preparedness is key. Logistically, in these constantly changing times, it is crucial to remain well informed of the latest restrictions, regulations, and travel requirements.

Even within the same country, regulations can change from one region to another and can impact your workforce’s domestic travels significantly. Make sure you access and communicate reliable and up-to-date security intelligence and analysis, in addition to logistical information to your people for them to comply with local regulations. On-the-ground experts are often best placed to provide real-time, actionable intelligence for your workforce to access to get fully prepared.

In the UK for example, travel restrictions continue to be in place until at least 17 May. These restrictions include a suspension on travel corridors, and at least a 10-day quarantine for all arrivals. For those travellers arriving from a red list country on the travel ban list, the quarantine restrictions state that at least 10 days must be spent in a government-approved hotel.

Under the new system, even if travelling from a green list country, people will have to take a test before departure and another within two days of arriving in the UK. The government also announced in March a £5,000 fine for travellers jetting off without good reason – although the Global Travel Taskforce report states that from 17 May travellers heading for foreign parts will no longer have to prove they have a valid reason for leaving the UK.

One thing is clear: despite a global pandemic with the same virus and the same science and research available to all, each country has made different decisions about how they will deal with the pandemic and their travel restrictions are likely to follow the same line: from different tests, to different timeframes for test validity, to different quarantine requirements, to requirements for evidence of vaccination. There is unlikely to be any standardisation.

Information on Covid-19 vaccines and access

Geopolitics and global economic inequality will affect vaccine access, which can impact business travel. Some countries have been quick to buy up vaccine stocks, which has resulted in some delays for less well off countries. Additionally, limited social resources, inadequate health infrastructure and insecurity will also contribute to an uneven global immunisation effort.

These factors have a direct impact on organisations’ international operations. If travel restrictions are eased for those who have been vaccinated, people in countries that are unable to access vaccine supplies might encounter additional hurdles while operating globally and conducting business travel. In addition, some countries may not accept or recognise certain vaccines, further complicating international travel.

Each country has made different decisions about how they will deal with the pandemic and their travel restrictions are likely to follow the same line: from different tests, to different timeframes for test validity, to different quarantine requirements, to requirements for evidence of vaccination

International SOS has also noted that many organisations have used the vaccination rollout as a trigger for a potential return to offices and domestic business travel. However, as the pace of immunisation programmes remains uneven and new variants emerge, various restrictions – both domestic and international – are likely to remain in place over the coming year. This too helps to emphasise the need to stay ahead of the latest global developments, as restrictions continue to evolve and change.

Your duty of care and travel policy

One way for companies to ensure they are compliant with the latest laws and restrictions is to update their travel policies. This could include adding in a higher level of oversight and planning for every trip, not just for trips to high-risk locations. By doing a risk assessment and more in-depth planning for each trip, firms can mitigate the risk of missing key restriction information or updates. This is also an important part of a duty of care framework. Implementing medical and security triggers can also be a positive addition to the update of a travel policy. This helps to reduce the risks that the traveller may face in advance of the trip and can help your organisation in defining what is considered business critical.

You may also like to include a policy on Covid vaccination, or at least ensure that you have fact-based information on the countries you are travelling to. And how do you calculate risk to your travellers? Do you wish to add Covid risk? And what Covid age will you link to increased risk? And what mitigating circumstances will you use to decrease that risk? What about people who have been vaccinated: how does that change their Covid risk? And it’s not just about Covid, which has been so all-consuming in the past 12 months: the knock-on effects have emphasised the need for mental health support for our staff including our travellers (it’s not easy being held in quarantine for 14 days in unsuitable accommodation, or not being able to leave a country because of some change to policy).

From implementing a new travel policy to building a Covid-19 vaccination programme, your return-to-travel journey could be a complex process to put in place where every step has to be thought through strategically. Ensure to capture all the elements with a comprehensive and integrated approach, considering both health and security risks.

Building traveller confidence and providing support

Some travellers will be very eager to start travelling again, while others might prefer to wait a bit longer. Organisations need to start thinking about adapting their return to travel strategy so it will suit both of these types of travellers. To help support the confidence and safety of travellers, communication is essential. Pre, during, and even after your trip, it is crucial that stakeholders responsible for travellers have communicated and updated each other- and travellers- of the latest developments, requirements, and risks.

Countries will continue to update their travel restrictions if cases rise, in order to protect their people and prevent a surge in Covid-19 activity. Organisations need to stay informed and flexible to manage any changes announced, and quickly adapt their policies and strategies so they can keep their businesses and people safe.

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Charline Gelin and Dr Mark Parrish

About Charline Gelin and Dr Mark Parrish

Charline Gelin (pictured) is security director and Dr Mark Parrish, regional medical director, International SOS
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