The arrival of the coronavirus vaccine has signaled a light at the end of the tunnel. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) also warns that vaccines will be no “magic bullet” that will overturn the situation overnight.
On this occasion, HR in Asia sits with Lee Quane, Regional Director – Asia, ECA International to discuss what vaccination could mean for the future of international business travel.
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Question: Global Covid-19 vaccine rollout is underway, promising a boost to the travel industry. Mr Quane, are you excited about this development? How quickly mass vaccination will help the industry return to some degree of normality?
Answer: The commencement of a vaccination program offers a glimmer of hope that recovery is underway. However, concerns over the efficacy of some vaccines are naturally expected to arise, causing government leaders to err on the side of caution – thus delaying the process of recovery even further.
For instance, the Taiwanese government will not be importing made-in-China vaccines due to their policy of banning imports of vaccines and biological products produced by China, and instead, are waiting in the long line for shipments from other overseas firms instead. Countries may also still require incoming travellers who have been vaccinated to undergo testing, quarantine or observe a stay-at-home (SHN) notice, as they take on the wait-and-see approach to guarantee the vaccines’ effectiveness. These policies, while justifiable, will limit the speed at which short-term travel such as business and leisure travel will recover.
Furthermore, with the travel industry having laid off a significant proportion of workers amidst the pandemic, many of these individuals are likely to have secured jobs in other sectors – leading to a shortage of employees in the travel and aviation space and constraints on being able to meet potential demand for travel and its associated services.
Question: With the government authorities typically establishing a vaccine priority list, how might this affect the way international and business travel opens up?
Answer: There is still a severe global shortage of vaccinations and vaccines, so they are typically given to vulnerable persons such as those that are at high risk of being infected by Covid-19, most international and business travellers are, therefore, unlikely to be vaccinated in the immediate term.
Moreover, as vaccination programs are still voluntary in most countries worldwide, companies are unlikely to insist on an employee to get a vaccination in order to be able to travel for business purposes – doing so may give rise to cases of discrimination. As such, we are unlikely to see a full recovery in the way international and business travel opens up, at least until vaccination programs are more widespread and available to all groups of society.
Question: Bill Gates said that 50% of business travel will disappear in the post-Covid-19 world. What is your opinion on this?
Answer: Regardless of the scale in which the rates of business travel will recover, it will still be lower than what it was pre-Covid-19 in the short-term. Several forecasts of a recovery have noted that it will require a minimum of two to three years before travel can return to what is considered to be ‘normal’.
Technology has also shown that cross-border collaboration can continue to thrive without the need to travel. Teams, both internally within a company, or clients and their vendors, have proven adept at collaborating by using technology since Covid-19 rendered all but the most essential business travel impossible. Companies are likely to continue to embrace technology to facilitate cross-border collaboration in future, resorting to business travel only when a face-to-face presence is deemed necessary, such as business development or the management of key relationships.
Question: Do you think that travellers’ confidence will return with vaccination?
Answer: I do think that the confidence levels of both travellers and the public will rise as more people get inoculated against Covid-19. This is similarly reflected in a global trends survey by Ipsos, which found that there have been considerable rises in the proportion of people who were willing to get vaccinated when countries began rolling out vaccination programmes.
However, there is a massive difference in confidence levels across the world, with countries such as France and Russia reporting much lower levels of confidence in the vaccines as compared to China and Britain. Concerns around the possible creation of vaccine passports have also arisen – notably, towards how the data is shared, stored and protected. While we already have situations where proof of inoculation of certain illnesses such as yellow fever is needed from travellers before they enter certain countries, a Covid-19 vaccine passport would likely need to be much more widespread in its implementation. This implies that there needs to be a global agreement regarding the passport’s format in order for it to be universally accepted by travellers and immigration departments alike.
Question: Based on your observation, what are safety protocols and measures that HR teams would be required to oversee for overseas assignees amid the pandemic?
Answer: Organisations have a duty of care to their employees and do what they can to minimise the risk and impact of Covid-19 on their staff, especially those who are sent overseas to work. For instance, HR leaders should ensure that when pre-departure medical assessments administered to staff before they travel are carried out, vulnerabilities to Covid-19 are also evaluated. Companies typically require an employee to have a medical assessment prior to assignment as these enable the organisation to identify certain risk factors that an employee might have, and helps the organisation to determine whether sending an employee on assignment will present a health risk to the employee. Incorporating screening for ailments, which can increase the chances of mortality to a person who is infected with Covid-19, enables the company to make the decision not to send an employee to locations where the risk of transmission is particularly high, or the medical infrastructure is ill-equipped to provide care for patients who have it.
Organisations can also conduct a pre-departure briefing with employees before their overseas assignment. In the absence of a vaccination, specialists can provide impartial advice to employees in terms of what they can do to reduce the risk of getting infected while they are based in their host locations.
Question: As a leader, how important is it to have your employees vaccinated? What is the best way to manage those who refuse to get the shots?
Answer: For organisations that send their employees on overseas assignments frequently, it is important for HR leaders to advise and encourage them to be vaccinated before undertaking travel, in order to reduce the direct risk of the employee catching the virus overseas, and transmitting it to family, friends, and colleagues upon their return. Moreover, certain airlines are now likely to require their travellers to have proof of vaccination before being permitted to travel, and many immigration authorities are following suit – leaving the decision out of the company’s hands.
However, if the employee refuses to get the vaccines, the employer can elect to not send the employee overseas by citing both business continuity and the health and safety of other colleagues as being of greater importance.
Question: What are some key considerations for employers when managing short-term and long-term business travellers who have or have not been vaccinated?
Answer: Managing the opinions of staff will have to be a key consideration for employers when developing their mobility plan for business travellers. For instance, if an unvaccinated employee was allowed to travel for business purposes or is sent to a high-risk location and then returns to work, the employer would need to consider whether other staff would be willing to accept the employee back in the office. In the absence of being vaccinated, the employer will likely require the employee to observe a period of quarantine and undergo Covid-19 testing before being allowed back to the office, which would likely counteract the benefit of the business trip.
It is equally important for HR teams to bear in mind that overseas assignees and business travellers need to act in accordance with the relevant legislation of the host country that they are going to. As such, if an employee travels to, or is assigned to, a location where vaccination against Covid-19 is mandatory for all, the employee would have to get vaccinated in order to enter or to remain in order to be in compliance with the host location’s laws. The recent case involving a permanent resident who had his status revoked for contravening his stay at home notice in Singapore shows the importance of acting in accordance with host country regulations and the consequences of non-compliance.
As ECA’s Regional Director of Asia, Lee Quane is responsible for managing Sales and Client Services in Asia, and provides consultancy to multinational companies in the region. Based in ECA’s Hong Kong office since 2003, Lee previously worked for the company in London, where he managed Location Ratings, co-ordinating research and product development. He also worked closely with multinational organisations on allowance reviews, updates and crisis management.
Lee gained a BA (Hons.) degree in History from the University of Leicester in 1999 and concluded his postgraduate studies in Economics at the University of London in 2003.
Connect with him on LinkedIn.
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