Managing Travel Risk in a Pandemic

There are no modern precedents for the speed and scope with which COVID-19 has disrupted virtually every aspect of human interaction. Within these disruptions are the tectonic shifts impacting how people travel.

For the moment, managing travel risk is relatively straightforward, as it’s incredibly difficult to travel internationally. As restrictions are eased and governments unlock entry prohibitions, the real work of assessing travel risk will begin. The way forward will require a blend of bedrock principles and new metrics.

Before Travel Restarts

Patience and flexibility will be the principles to live by. Maintaining a defensible duty of care will not be possible under the pre-pandemic speed of business. Political expediency will overtake scientific consensus in some locations, leading to a premature unwinding of safety protocols. The risk landscape will require closer inspection and constant re-evaluation. Open for business does not automatically equate to safe for business. Decisions about when and where to travel will necessitate a larger audience than was previously required. While building the process may feel administratively awkward and cumbersome at the outset, as with most things, it will eventually find its own level.

In lieu of a designated Decision Making Authority (DMA), an internal working group will likely be the most efficient way to assess when and where travel should proceed. Historically security or travel was the DMA in this arena. In a pandemic world the implications of travel move beyond these domains. Different organizations will have different needs, but at a minimum the following functions should be represented:

  • Environmental Health and Safety (EHS)
  • Human Resources (HR)
  • Travel
  • Legal
  • Security
  • Communications
  • Compliance
  • Risk

Prior to any discussion about resumption of travel, a few administrative questions should be resolved. What may appear to be over communicating can save enormous effort should a worst- case scenario present. An organization should examine the following questions:

  • Does existing business travel insurance cover employees entering a known hazard area?
  • Are pandemic-related claims exempted by insurance providers?
  • Where do business travel insurance, the employee’s personal health insurance, and workers compensation begin and end in relation to health risks associated with travel?
  • In what instances will traveling employees be required to self-quarantine prior to returning to the workplace?
  • Who within the organization will track and manage this process?
  • Who will certify employee’s return to work status?
  • Is the use of a Travel Management Company (TMC) mandated? If so, does it have the ability to block out destinations? Who will be responsible for processing and authorizing exceptions requests from employees wanting to travel?

Mapping functional responsibilities and authority is the first step in building a defensible duty of care.

Resuming Travel

The pre-pandemic practice of deferring to U.S. Department of State or U.K. Foreign Commonwealth Office recommendations may no longer be sufficient. Conditions are rapidly changing and the sometimes vague government guidelines prose may not highlight all aspects of risk. A blended approach utilizing multiple sources will be essential for assessing risk. If there is not a process for assessing risk then there is not a defensible duty of care.

The following points should be examined when considering a resumption of travel:

  • What is the current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance? State Department? Foreign & Commonwealth Office? When was guidance last updated?
  • Does the organization have a travel safety and security provider? If so, what is their current guidance?
  • Are infection rates rising or declining at the destination? Is the recovery rate rising or declining?
  • Are there local, regional, or national restrictions on movement and gatherings? If so, what are they?
  • Are there restrictions on the entry of non-citizens and residents? If not, are quarantine periods being imposed upon arriving international travelers? Does the traveler’s country of departure require quarantine upon return from the destination?
  • Are hotels at the destination operating? If not, is this reflected in the Travel Management Company platforms? Are closures due to government mandate or lack of business?
  • Are restaurants at the destination operating? If not, is this due to government mandate or lack of business?
  • Is the local transportation infrastructure (mass transit, taxis, Uber) operating?
  • Have you ascertained that the local hotels, restaurants and transportation systems have implemented recognized sanitation standards?
  • Is the local health care system at or beyond capacity due to the pandemic? Do you or your travel safety and security provider have the ability to medically evacuate a traveler?
  • Has the pandemic resulted in a degradation of the overall security environment? Has the Kidnap for Ransom and Extortion (KFRE) threat increased? Has a previously moderate risk location become high risk? For insight on this topic Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) and other public/private partnerships should be engaged.

In a pre-COVID-19 world, relying on government guidance and travel services providers’ duty of care may have been sufficient for the most part. While a travel service provider’s duty of care remains unchanged, the burdens on organizations to assess risk, advise their employees of those risks, and mitigate risks where possible for their travelers has become more complex. This complexity will necessitate a slower assessment speed, a deeper risk assessment dive, and longer decision cycle than was the standard in a pre-pandemic world. As with all other calamitous events in human history, at the outset the changes required to move forward will seem arduous. With time and experience, what once felt like change simply becomes the way things are done.

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