The world’s appetite for travel is as strong for many as it has ever been, and Americans are flying in greater numbers than they have all year. However, since requirements for authorized travel are still varied, nuanced, and changing, the need for relevant and timely global risk intelligence continues to gain increasing importance. On Call Global Security Specialist and in-house travel restart and location monitoring expert, Noah Hartnett, shares some important things for organizations to consider as they continue to prepare their people to travel in a world that is constantly changing, ever evolving, and continuously adapting to a world with COVID and its variants.
What are the variables that go into making informed decisions around travel right now?
Noah: Here at On Call, we break these variables down for our clients into a simple tiered framework for decision-making. First, can we go? Travel to many locations is now possible, but any trip requires diligent research and preparation. Second, what are the risks if we go? Once the ability to enter a particular location has been confirmed, the data gathering turns to COVID-19 case trends and the local medical systems’ capacity to test, isolate, and treat. Third, what will it look like when we go? The government warnings and restrictions in place will educate on this variable. Finally, should we go? This gets to the individual risk tolerance of the organization. What economic risk/reward is in play? What is the reputational or relationship risk? Does the travel base feel comfortable traveling? All these customized and organizational variables help funnel the final travel decision.
How does the Delta variant’s prominence play into this decision-making process?
Noah: The spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19 has added an additional unknown to the multi-factor dynamic that is predicting potential risks to travel. As the science tells us now, what matters most for travelers is that the variant is more transmissible, and thus increasing case counts in certain parts of the world. Travelers are advised to focus on traditional epidemiological indicators and consider ways in which government policy regarding travelers and access to healthcare facilities have changed during past surges.
What are the main factors to consider when conducting a risk assessment to travel to a particular location?
Noah: When considering potential risks of travel to a destination during COVID-19, I find it most helpful to break things down into three categories: operations, medical, and security.
Operations is all about identifying the ways in which restrictions and requirements will complicate or place barriers on different types of travel. Examples include conditions for entry into country (tests, quarantines, exceptions for fully vaccinated?); limits on travel in country (essential vs non-essential); rules about people gathering (number, purpose, indoor/outdoor); and even if hotels and restaurants are operating for guests. When entering some countries travelers currently have to isolate in government-run quarantine hotels for at least three days at their own expense. Under these circumstances, a weekend trip is hardly practical, but high importance or long-duration trips may still be considered feasible. Answering these questions can help an organization to understand whether the types of travel being pursued are currently permitted and practical.
Medical encompasses the epidemiological situation in country along with the ability for the medical infrastructure to cope with the outbreak in its current state. Are cases rising or falling? Where are cases most concentrated? And most importantly, how difficult is it to access healthcare if needed? While COVID-19 is certainly worth consideration, equally important is understanding whether it’s possible to receive treatment for completely unrelated injuries/incidents. Things to look for include metrics on general bed/ICU capacity and reporting indicating whether hospitals are continuing to admit patients for non-urgent/voluntary care (lead indicator). It can be helpful to investigate reports on hospital capacity not only now, but also in the past during case peaks to understand how things can change if the outbreak should intensify.
Security refers to a destination’s current risk level for things like crime and civil unrest. COVID-19 has caused significant economic and societal disruption around the world resulting in mass unemployment and a significant backslide of populations into poverty, particularly in societies with prevalent informal economies. These disruptions have caused increased crime and at times caused significant civil unrest in protest of government restrictions and general management of the pandemic. These factors have in some places significantly elevated the crime/civil unrest risk a traveler may face, making it important even for travelers with pre-COVID-19 travel experience to a country to reassess the situation prior to travel.
Proof of vaccination is a hot topic right now – what are some trends you’re seeing in this realm, and do you think this could be ‘the new thing’ for international travel in the near future?
Noah: With restaurants, venues, and of course countries in some cases now requiring proof of vaccination for entry, having a standardized and easy to share method of proving vaccination is critical. However, there have been very different approaches to vaccine passports playing out around the world with little standardization.
The EU, for instance, has rolled out a standardized EU Digital Covid Certificate to be used as the common means of determining vaccination status for all member states. This passport went live in all member states on July 1, 2021, though some began supporting and utilizing the Covid Certificate weeks prior. While this Covid Certificate is not yet issued to non-EU citizens/residents, it is expected eligibility will be expanded soon. Travelers would be required to apply for the Covid Certificate via their destination country and to provide proof of vaccination. It is unclear as of yet what form of proof will be considered acceptable, but the major traveler countries have been working on solutions with the US and are in many cases accepting CDC Vaccination Cards.
In the US the state of New York has implemented a similar digital vaccine passport, Excelsior Pass, but other US states have banned them outright and the federal government has stated it will not be rolling out a standardized version for use countrywide. Instead, the Biden administration has said it views the project of digitizing and storing citizen vaccination status information as more appropriate for private sector solutions.
The bottom line is that internationally (and even nationally within the US) there remains no standardized way to prove vaccination. The best way to determine entry requirements and acceptable forms of proof of vaccination is to research the specific country in question and their stated requirements. On Call International is constantly monitoring relevant policy makers and industry leaders in countries of interest to provide our clients with updates and leading indicators regarding when vaccination status will enable restriction-free travel to different parts of the world. While details may still be a bit fuzzy around how vaccinations status will be proved, it’s looking clear that being fully vaccinated could soon be a clear ticket for travelers to avoid entry restrictions and quarantine/testing requirements in a number of countries around the world.
In closing do you have any general pre-travel advice for organizations looking to travel right now?
Noah: As I’m sure we all know these variables can and do change rapidly and merit constant monitoring. It can be helpful to try to identify trends (improving/worsening, increasing/decreasing, easing/tightening) which can indicate not just what is true today, but where things may be in a month on departure date.
Likely your assessment will find that traveling to your destination may be a bit more complicated than it was two years ago; so preparing travelers with timely information and ensuring they have the proper resources lined up in the event of an emergency can make all the difference. Emergency response planning is a big world unto itself, but it bears highlighting that given the added complexity and potentially higher risks of travel during COVID-19, it has never been more important to have a well-established plan in place to mitigate and respond to potential crises when resuming travel. Developing communication plans, designating responsibilities, reviewing any relevant travel policies, and creating incident specific checklists are all great ways to get started for those who may not yet have established emergency response procedures in place.
Want to learn (even) more?
On Call’s Travel Restart & Location Monitoring Program provides your organization with comprehensive tools, information, and resources to make informed decisions around traveling in a world with COVID-19. Whether you’re looking for a standard solution to apply to specific locations of interest, or a customized option that includes location monitoring and regular updates, On Call can help you create a travel strategy that is aligned with your organization’s unique needs. Contact us today if you would like to learn more about getting started with On Call’s Travel Restart & Location Monitoring Program.
For over 25 years, On Call International has provided fully-customized travel risk management and global assistance services protecting millions of travelers, their families, and their organizations. Contact us today and watch our video to learn more. You can also stay in touch with On Call’s in-house risk management, travel health and security experts by signing up for our quarterly Travel Risk Management (TRM) newsletter.