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Key considerations for the resumption of business travel

In March, as the Covid-19 pandemic began to take hold, we witnessed global travel chaos such as the world has never seen. Borders shut down with little or no notice, with no outbound commercial flights, and travellers were left stranded hoping they could be rescued by designated repatriation flights. In the subsequent months some borders remained firmly shut, with some countries, like Australia, maintaining to this date near-total bans of in and outbound travel. But particularly within Europe, more recently, there has been a gradual easing of travel restrictions. Consequently, businesses are tentatively looking into the possibility of a resumption of international business travel.

1. Determine whether the trip is necessary

The first and most obvious consideration when looking into an international business trip during this uncertain time is whether or not travel is truly essential. As many have adapted to working from home, much has been made of the huge increase in use of video conferencing software, with some arguing that even in a post-Covid world this could replace many of the face-to-face interactions we were previously accustomed to. Whether or not this happens remains to be seen, but in the short-term companies will likely favour this technology when it is a viable alternative to international travel.

If the trip is regarded as essential, the entry requirements of the destination need to be carefully examined. Even if travel is permitted, the majority of countries around the world still require travellers to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival, essentially ruling out trips in most cases. It is also important to bear in mind that restrictions are liable to change at short notice and a spike in cases in the traveller’s country of origin could mean they are promptly added to a quarantine list or even denied entry. Quarantine restrictions may also apply when the traveller returns home if the country visited sees an increase in infections.

Once it has been established that the trip is possible, companies should perform a risk assessment specifically relating to the Covid-19 situation in the destination country. It is important to consider this on local and regional levels too, as a country may have a relatively low rate of infection nationwide, but have a significant outbreak in the particular location that will be visited. As countries come out of nationwide lockdowns, it is increasingly expected that nationwide restrictions will be replaced by more localised lockdowns. This could mean that a traveller is subject to movement restrictions within the destination country and is ultimately unable to carry out the work that had been planned.

2. Complete a risk assessment

An assessment also needs to consider the type of work involved, to ascertain the main risks of exposure and how best to mitigate this. It is thought that Covid-19 is transmitted most effectively by prolonged close contact within enclosed spaces, so time spent in these environments should be limited where possible. This could mean avoiding public transport and even conducting business meetings in outdoor environments. Companies may even consider encouraging business class seats on flights, to reduce the number of close contacts the traveller is exposed to – something which would undoubtedly prove to be a popular, if expensive, move! 

Any risk assessment should be carefully considered in the context of the risk profile of the traveller; age, sex, ethnicity and presence of underlying health conditions are all known to play a role in the risk of an individual developing serious symptoms. It is important to remember that travellers may have an underlying condition that the company, or even they themselves, are not aware of. 

Considering the risk posed by Covid-19 is imperative, but it is also important not to neglect other travel risks. Indeed, a young business traveller who is deemed to be at a low risk from Covid-19 may be statistically more vulnerable to more ‘traditional’ travel risks, such as road traffic accidents. It is important to keep up with government travel advice, along with advice from travel risk consultants, which could have implications for the validity of corporate travel insurance policies. In many locations the pre-existing risks have been exacerbated during the pandemic, and typically ‘medium’ risk locations may now be classed as ‘high’ risk. Some locations also now have an increased likelihood of social unrest and there are reports of increased xenophobia in some countries as foreigners are blamed for importing the virus. Depending on the extent to which a country is affected by Covid-19, medical facilities may be under increased pressure too, with a reduced capacity to treat other medical emergencies that could arise.

3. Expect restrictions and longer wait times

If it has been decided that travel can proceed, the experience will probably differ from previous trips. If travelling by air, the process is likely to be more laborious. Passengers may be asked to arrive at the airport early, be subjected to temperature checks and discouraged from taking hand luggage. Most airlines have now made face coverings mandatory and restricted the service of food and drink during flights. In some cases, you may now even need to ask for permission to use the toilet!

Upon arrival, you should expect longer than normal wait times at immigration checkpoints as officials carry out temperature checks and collect health questionnaires. A swift escape from the airport with only hand luggage may no longer be possible, so be sure to factor in time to wait for your luggage. Travellers should also expect socially distanced queueing for on-the-ground transport, as many places are likely to have a high demand for taxis as people continue to avoid public transport. 

The experience once in your location will be very much dependent on the restrictions in place there. In many countries, restrictions on bars and restaurants may limit the possibility of enjoying the more social aspects of a business trip. Amenities previously taken for granted, such as hotel gyms, may now be unavailable. It is important that you familiarise yourself with the social distancing guidelines within the location, along with rules on face coverings, and be aware that these can be updated at short notice.

According to ECA’s recent Global Mobility & Covid-19 Survey, the pandemic has made companies less optimistic than they were before, with more companies forecasting decreases than increases in both long-term assignments and short-term business trips. In addition, 62% of companies expect to have fewer international business trips going forward compared to their pre-pandemic plans. However, the most common expectation was that numbers would return to pre-pandemic levels within six to 12 months. Only a small minority of respondents did not expect business travel or overseas assignments to ever return to pre-pandemic levels. 

So what is the travel outlook for the rest of 2020? Over the coming months we can expect countries to increasingly adopt a risk-based approach to immigration restrictions, taking into account the extent and trajectory of infection in a country, as well as the reliability of the data. Transparency and international cooperation will be essential in facilitating reciprocal ‘air bridge’ agreements which permit travel without quarantine. Countries that are heavily dependent on international tourism and business travel are likely to adopt a more lenient border policy as economic concerns become more pronounced. However, countries such as New Zealand, which until this week appeared to have eliminated the virus, are unlikely to risk their hard-won ‘Covid-free’ status and are expected to maintain strict border controls for the foreseeable future.

As countries look to alternatives to quarantining arrivals, an increasing number of locations are now testing passengers to try and catch imported cases. Countries such as Iceland allow passengers to take a test on arrival. Results are often available the same day and as long as the test is negative you are not required to quarantine. As infection rates in some parts of Europe have increased again, Germany has recently announced mandatory testing for all arrivals from locations determined as high risk.  As testing capacity improves, along with speed and accuracy of testing, countries are likely to progressively use these tools to mitigate the risk of imported cases, while avoiding an economically damaging blanket quarantine. This strategy is not without risk though, as tests can produce false negatives and the long incubation period could mean that passengers could test negative, but become infectious at a later stage.

In conclusion, international business travel over the coming months will likely be limited to essential trips, predominantly involving short-haul journeys to and from lower-risk destinations. The extent to which travel will expand in scope as the year progresses will be determined by the trajectory of the Covid-19 pandemic. A recent resurgence of Covid-19 cases across Europe, together with broader concerns over a sustained increase in infections as northern hemisphere countries start to encounter colder weather, will mean the majority of companies will most likely adopt a cautious wait-and-see approach.


If you would like to discuss any of the above in further detail, or seek our advice regarding how to manage your mobile employees during the pandemic, please do not hesitate to contact us or your ECA point of contact directly.

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