How should businesses, HR departments and global mobility companies respond to the challenges brought about by coronavirus? What are the moral, legal and practical implications of this crisis?
Special report by Marianne Curphey
The Coronavirus (or COVID-19) has affected virtually every continent in the world and global travel is increasingly curtailed and restricted. For many businesses, the challenge is to keep staff who are abroad safe, ensuring they have accurate and up-to-date information – and are fully supported. Managers must also make key decisions on future assignments, balancing the risk to staff against the need to continue operating as a business and providing a service to clients.
Putting employee wellbeing at the forefront of care
On a practical level, Paul Holcroft, associate director at HR consultancy Croner – which specialises in employment law, HR and health & safety – says the key is always to know where your employees are and where they are going. This may sound like a simple task, but the practical challenges of keeping track of every member of staff around the world on an hour-by-hour basis can be overwhelming.
He says you should consider alternatives to any planned travel to affected areas; for example, postponing a trip or carrying out meetings via Skype.
“If travel is deemed necessary, then you should effectively but proportionately manage the risk. Always know where your employees are and where they are going. Ensure they are given clear instructions on hygiene.”
If employees report symptoms of the virus while they are travelling, you will need to support them. Also, if employees become sick with the coronavirus, they should be paid sick pay in accordance with your normal policy, says Michael Burd, partner at law firm Lewis Silkin.
“Employees who are not sick but are being requested to remain away from work may be able to work from home,” he says. “Even if they cannot work from home, they should be paid their normal salary if they are well enough to work, but are being requested not to attend work.”
Travel insurance: getting the right policy
The foundation of good employee care overseas is a comprehensive travel insurance policy. Historically, healthcare and travel insurance policies have been reactive, i.e. when the employee needs help they call for assistance and the 24/7 assistance provider delivers the required solution. However, a new suite of insurance products are now much more proactive.
Juan Peña Núñez, business development director atHealix International, says that travel and healthcare insurance products now offer an impressive suite of proactive benefits, so that people can access pre-travel medical and security information hotlines, apps, portals, travel-specific e-learning, high-level medical and security risk reports, and security alerts. “While these policies can be very comprehensive, there still may be a perceived shortfall in cover for services not traditionally covered under the insurance,” he says. For example, employee traveller tracking, close protection, medical and security consultancy, medical screening, and pandemic disease planning may not be covered.“
This often results in organisations supplementing their insurance cover by buying top-up risk mitigation services – usually from their emergency assistance provider – for an integrated one-stop solution,” adds Mr Peña Núñez. This can complement the insurance product simply and efficiently, by providing a single point of contact for insured and non-insured risk mitigation services.
Typically, unless the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has advised against travel to a destination, customers will not be covered by their insurance for what is called a ‘disinclination’ to travel. “However, having a range of relevant insurance products to choose from at the point of sale can help to protect customers, such as cancel for any reason (CAFR) insurance, which would enable customers to claim in such circumstances,” says Peter Smith, head of strategic partnerships - travel (EMEA) at Cover Genius, which provides insurance for the world’s largest e-commerce companies, including travel brands such as Booking.com.
Emergency assistance for employees
While insurance can be useful before and during an employee’s stay overseas, the Coronavirus presents a particular problem in terms of evacuation and recovery, says Dr Adrian Hyzler, chief medical officer at Healix International. “In a confirmed case of COVID-19 it will be very difficult, if not impossible, for the assistance company to evacuate any employee back to their home country,” he says.
There are only a few specified Air Ambulance providers that are equipped and willing to carry contagious patients. What’s more, an evacuation ofthis sort would need governmental agreement from both the current and admitting country, and there would need to be agencies prepared to provide suitable ground transfers. In the case of a patient with symptoms, two negative COVID-19 tests are usually required before they would be given clearance to travel.
As part of supporting employees, healthcare insurance can provide a 24-hour medical assistance helpline to speak to health professionals, advice on local regulations and clear medical instructions if the person is already experiencing symptoms.
Issuing advice as the Coronavirus situation changes
As part of their duty of care to employees, companies should:
Follow official local advice closely
Disseminate clear and up-to-date information to employees
Instigate reasonable measures to protect employees, such as handwashing/alcohol sanitising stations in the workplace
Make sure that anyone displaying symptoms is advised not to enter the workplace and anyone with symptoms is quickly but sensitively removed from the workplace
Inform employees of any change in advice.
Dependants are also vulnerable, says Dr Hyzler, and may have concerns about their partner’s business travel, exposure to public transport and close contact in the office environment. For this reason, it is important that they are also made aware of the precautions that the company is taking to ensure the safety of its employees. “Employees should be informed that they should not come into the office if any of their close family develops any symptoms of fever, cough, sore throat or difficulty breathing if they have travelled to affected countries or if they are in a community where there have been cases,” he says.
Appropriate travel insurance cover
Insurance expert Andi Dominguez from Quadient believes that the travel insurance industry has many steps to take before it’s truly prepared for outbreaks like Coronavirus. “For starters, travel insurers must make sure they provide customers with a better understanding of policy coverage longer term,” she says. This should be done proactively, before outbreaks like the Coronavirus affect customers’ travel plans, communicating transparently about not just what is included in their cover, but also what is not covered.
In the 21st century, having to rely on the fine print should be a thing of the past – this information should be communicated with customers in a way that ensures it is understood. “This is especially crucial, as customers’ first question in a moment of crisis will be the all-important, ‘Am I covered or not?’,” says Ms Dominguez. Insurers that give customers this peace of mind will reap rewards when it comes to trust.
This means that while affected policyholders are taking care of themselves and their loved ones during an outbreak, the insurer is taking care of processing the claim quickly and arranging logistics such as short-term accommodation and transportation alternatives.
Virtual medical consultations - a tailored service
New technologies have made tracking, protecting and assisting employees easier. Virtual health consultations can be invaluable to customers, says Mr Smith. “For example, Global Doctor is a text-initiated video-on-demand medical service that provides travellers with 24/7 access to local language doctors who can assess symptoms before providing further treatment advice,” he says.
This service can be critical for travellers who find themselves suddenly unwell outside of their home country and in need of medical advice in their native language. Global Doctor is available to both leisure and business travellers, and gives accurate and timely medical assistance at any time of the day. “Often in ever-changing scenarios that unfold quickly like coronavirus, fast access to accurate and relevant support services is vital for travellers,” says Mr Smith.
Having the right policies in place
In an emergency, or a rapidly changing global health situation like the spread of COVID-19, it becomes vital that you know exactly where each member of staff is located. You also need to know their future travel plans, which methods of transport they are using and what flights are booked. It may be that you need to cancel, reroute or change plans, and this becomes much easier and safer if you have all of their travel details on one integrated system.
Martin Ferguson is VP of public affairs at American Express Global Business Travel (GBT), which manages more than $35 billion of the world’s business travel, supporting close to 10 million travellers each year. He says flight and hotel information is helpful in finding people in an emergency, but companies need to gain permission from employees to use and store this data.
Using a central book service or travel management company means that all the details on every employee are available in one place for easy reference. “When negotiating corporate deals with travel suppliers, it is worth pushing to include favourable cancellation terms and conditions, to reduce losses when travel and meeting plans suddenly change,” he adds. “In situations like the current one, all those across the travel supply chain must recognise the importance of decision-making based on facts and advice from credible sources, such as government authorities.” This means educating staff to rely on official sources, rather than rumour or unclear advice on the Internet.
Keeping your business globally mobile
Despite all the challenges, many businesses will decide that key staff do need to travel, so the priority will be ensuring that assignees take precautions to minimise risk. “I hope that the appearance of the coronavirus does not impact the wider confidence of individuals and business to be mobile,” says Robert Fletcher, co-founder of Heart Relocation.“
Clearly, there is a short term impact – simply the inability to fly to China will impact movement – but we hope this remains as a temporary measure and when the authorities feel they have it under control that normal service will be resumed.”