Navigating ‘the new normal’: ‘essential travel’ in a world of restrictions

‘Essential travel only.’ ‘Avoid travelling unless it is essential.’ ‘Defer non-essential travel.’ ‘Travel should be for business-critical purposes only.’

These phrases, and others like them, will be familiar to anyone who has engaged the services of a Travel Risk Management (TRM) provider, or even just tried to find out what kind of help they might get from their government if they holiday somewhere off the beaten track.

This year, however, the concept of ‘essential travel’ has gained much wider attention – and scrutiny – because limitations on ‘non-essential’ movement have been fundamental to the way many governments have responded to the spread of COVID-19.

And, the cynical might argue, the concept is about as much help to citizens of countries in some kind of ‘lockdown’ as it has been historically to travel managers. The term is subjective, and explanations often struggle to strike a balance between being at once straightforward enough for the general reader to apply, stringent enough to actually have some – hopefully measurable – effect, yet permissive enough not to erode liberties or strangle business; and, especially pertinent to a pandemic, are comprehensive enough to inform decisions about the advisability of the kinds of activity that people undertake every day without a second thought.

So what does ‘essential travel’ mean?
It is relatively simple to work out if your proposed domestic travel is essential. In the current circumstances, travel within many parts of the world affected by COVID-19 is governed by a detailed body of law. This typically gives numerous examples of the types of ‘essential’ travel, which is permitted, often focused on giving care and support to the vulnerable. Despite this greater detail, however, even careful reading and application of the law can be fraught, and well-intentioned but necessarily generic examples can raise as many questions as they answer. (As various public figures around the world have learned to their cost, even sticking within the regulations is often not a defence against popular opprobrium.)

As far as international travel goes, the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office speaks for many governments on this point: “Whether travel is essential or not is your decision. Only you,” according to its website, “can make an informed decision based on the risks…” This latitude is helpful, but carries risks, not least financial: there could be cost implications for you if your insurer will not cover cancelled flights to countries to which your government advises against travel. As most businesses will know, with travel budgets likely to shrink, the relative costs of a failed itinerary rise significantly: it is even more important to make an essential trip count.

As a result, deciding if your international travel is essential means you need to balance both your own government’s advice with your ability to navigate any restrictions in effect at your destination, the potential costs associated with any significant changes, and, of course, the importance of the trip for your business.

This is where the services of a TRM company are very useful. They will not assume responsibility for any decision about whether travel is essential – that has to remain yours – but they can help frame the question in a constructive way.

Given the uncertain outlook for many businesses, cutting down on travel is an obvious potential source of savings. As a result, approval for travel in many businesses sits at a much higher level than it did earlier this year: the approver will almost certainly be the final arbiter of what travel is ‘essential,’ and understanding the potential additional costs you might incur will be instrumental to making an informed decision.

The first question is whether it is even possible to travel to that location from your point of origin. Markets might be ‘open for business’ to many countries, but citizens arriving from, for example, disease ‘hot spots’ might well be subject to greater scrutiny, or even outright bans. So you need to determine what restrictions are in place that could complicate arrival, onward travel, departure and the return to work.

The best TRM providers will already have provided their clients with access to accurate and up to date information on the current state of inbound travel restrictions by destination country and will highlight those locations where further research is necessary – our partner Safeture’s COVID-19 tracker provides up to the minute advice on a country by country basis down, and to state level for domestic travellers.

Additionally, unlike the ‘one size fits all,’ online, ‘read-only’ nature of most government advice, the best TRM services give direct 24-7 access to specialists covering international developments; and moreover can provide advice focused on your itinerary specifically, rather than relying on generic guidance. Your provider can discuss with you or your traveller the specifics of their personal circumstances and planned itinerary, to provide objective advice tailored to the individual (or group). They can also provide you with additional information and analysis about the situation in detail at your destinations, in greater detail, and keep you up to date via alerting which is more responsive and frequent than most government advisories . Securewest are currently helping our clients to navigate this complex path as they look to re-start their global travel programs. Once you have determined the ‘can I?’, you can start to home in on the ‘should I?’

Questions to consider when deciding if travel is ‘essential’ include:

  • What effect are you trying to achieve through the travel, and could you achieve that effect via an alternative means? Is face-to-face contact essential or could you make do with a video call?
  • If not, does it have to be in a particular location? What entry restrictions are in place? What movement restrictions are in effect? What steps can be taken to reduce the need for internal travel, such as using a hotel near the airport? Could the meeting be held there?
  • Does it have to be at a particular time, or is it possible to defer the trip? If so, for how long?
  • If the trip cannot be postponed, could you take a leaf out of the spooks’ manual and meet the person in a third country, where restrictions are less onerous?
  • Are there cultural issues that could be important? Could showing an excessive aversion to travel, or making unnecessarily elaborate provisions for your employees’ safety, be perceived as a slight? Perhaps more importantly, while fortune favours the bold, her enthusiasm might not be shared universally at present: could an apparent determination to travel right now be perceived as reckless or disrespectful to the host country?

Your TRM provider can help cut through the less objective media reporting and put raw figures into context.

Additionally, as the disease waxes in some countries and wanes in others, the situation across the world is prone to considerable change at short notice from place to place, with changes to restrictions almost daily. If your travel is essential, you will need to ensure you prepare your employees for the uncertainty and as a employer that you understand – and can absorb the costs associated with – the sorts of last-minute changes this could entail, such as flights being cancelled or the sudden imposition of local movement restrictions.

Equally, it is important to identify the easing of restrictions, as travel you might have previously deemed non-essential is once again viable.

Decisions about ‘essential travel’ remain yours, just like they were before the COVID-19 outbreak, but there is plenty of support to help you make it. Common sense allied to structured thinking based on accurate, timely information is as important as it always was.


About Securewest

We have been supporting our clients for over 30 years and continue to do so throughout the current pandemic. If you would like help defining ‘essential’ travel for your organisation and pre-travel Risk Assessments to support the decision making process or have any questions about the above article or Travel Risk Management please contact our team.

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