Can HR ban unvaccinated staff from travelling?

Is it now safe to fly with a vaccine?

Can HR ban unvaccinated staff from travelling?

Worldwide, many have been complaining that vaccinations have been off to a ‘slow start’. Despite this, it hasn’t stopped anyone from wondering about one thing: can we travel if we get vaccinated? While the answer may vary from country to country, depending on whether the local authorities decide to open their borders for travellers, murmurs abound about the possibility of ‘vaccine passports’ to ease the troublesome journey.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has rejected the idea of a vaccination passport due to concerns like uncertainty around vaccines as well as equity issues including unfair access to shots. “At this stage we would not like to see the vaccination passport as a requirement for entry or exit because we are not certain that the vaccine prevents transmission,” Margaret Harris, spokesperson at WHO said during a UN briefing. “There are all those other questions, apart from the question of discrimination against the people who are not able to have the vaccine for one reason or another.”

Read more: Singapore to open ‘bubble’ for business travellers

However, it’s still up to governments to decide on their travel policy while COVID-19 continues to be a part of our lives. Singapore’s leaders for instance recently talked about their plans for a vaccine passport system to enable travel for business and leisure. Dr Janil Puthucheary, senior minister of state for health said the government was currently actively discussing with international leaders on possible mutual agreements to allow cross-border travel based off someone’s vaccination status.

Discussions may take some time, said Dr Puthucheary during the parliament session, as more data was needed to assess the feasibility of an international agreement. This is especially when situations can change at any time when it comes to the virus. There’s also the issue of deciding the most secure and ‘verifiable’ form of vaccination passports, as different immigration or government authorities will have varied capabilities or systems in place to confirm the authenticity of the certificates.

Read more: Vaccinations: Will you monitor staff jabs?

Do travellers want to start flying during a pandemic?

Time will tell whether vaccine passports catch on worldwide and can ease the travel process, though the situation may be more complicated than we think as it also involves factors like countries’ varying quarantine periods or safe management measures.

Then there’s the issue of whether business travellers want to start flying again. Back in September when vaccine talk was still in the early stages, SAP Concur found that almost all (91%) travellers in APAC were concerned about resuming travel. Nearly half (43%) said they were worried that overseas trips would resume once restrictions were lifted.

Post-COVID-19, they said that they’d likely be stressed out or anxious about:

  • Being on a plane (54%)
  • Using public transportation (48%)
  • Staying in a hotel (41%)
  • Getting sick during the trip (55%)
  • Infecting their loved ones upon returning (51%)

Read more: Ready to get back to business travel?

Frequent flyers made it clear that they expect employers to implement new health and safety measures. Organisations that aren’t proactive or don’t make the extra effort to protect employee well-being on business trips during the pandemic could risk consequences – half of business travellers said they would ask to limit travel if their company failed to implement added safety measures. Another 14% would even request for a position that does not require travel, with 5% going so far as to consider quitting and finding another job altogether.

Despite this, more than a quarter of professionals surveyed were excited about resuming travel. Others felt that the trips are essential to conduct business, and networking or meeting people online just doesn’t quite cut it. About three in five business travellers expected a ‘dramatic decline’ in the number of signed business deals and contracts due to a ‘force stop’ in meetings. Half (55%) believed a lack of trips have led to a drop in new business opportunities.

Whether they’re keen on resuming travel or not, SAP found that almost all (97%) business travellers across APAC would like to see leaders implement measures or enhance existing policies that will keep them safe while travelling amidst a pandemic.

Read more: Your workers want better COVID vaccine policies

Can leaders mandate vaccinations for business travellers?

Those were findings before a vaccine was available but now that several are on the market, should companies mandate that staff take the shots as part of an updated business travel policy? While vaccinations are typically voluntary, Lee Quane, regional director – Asia at ECA International, believes it “isn’t necessarily discrimination” if you require staff to get the shots if they wanted to travel.

“It is essentially ensuring business continuity,” Quane told HRD. “If a person is vaccinated, it reduces the risk of them becoming ill while they’re overseas, which obviously means that the business trip is more likely to succeed.”

Then there’s the added risk of unvaccinated travellers ‘bringing’ the virus back to the office after a trip. Understandably, not everyone in the office will be vaccinated for various reasons, so Quane said it’s on leaders to mitigate the risk and protect not just the traveller, but all other employees in the organisation.

If the company isn’t comfortable with mandating or forcing staff to take the voluntary shots, explaining the risks of not getting vaccinated to travellers can also boost your efforts to encourage take up rate. Leaders can clearly explain how the traveller will not only put fellow colleagues at heightened risk of getting COVID-19, but also their loved ones back home.

Read more: Vaccination: What’s HR’s role in managing employees?

“While vaccinations are a personal choice, our role as a corporation is to give the correct information and enable them to make an enlightened choice based on the risks and benefits,” said Dr Low Kiang Wei, medical director at International SOS. “And that includes the medical as well as the social portion.

“Once all the information is well presented, I think the individual will be well placed to make a choice, and then our role will be to ensure their safety…and make sure that whether they’re vaccinated or not, they’ll have access to the same level of support.”

Both Dr Low and Quane believe that considering the pandemic, companies should make a greater effort in assessing whether an employee is fit for travel. For instance, if the trip is to a high-risk location and an individual can’t get vaccinated for medical reasons, leaders can choose to send someone else instead. Leaders should communicate to the staff that it’s “not a penalty” and that the company just has greater concern for their health and safety.

Of course, businesses should also figure out if an overseas trip is necessary or if the job can be done just as well through video calls. Quane expects companies to now review business travel more closely, and if they’re just a one-night trip to train some colleagues, for example, companies may decide to arrange an online meeting instead.

Read more: COVID-19: Can HR 'compel' employees to travel?

“We will probably see a reduction in business travel because there are risks associated with it,” Quane said. “Also, the fact is that most people don’t expect global herd immunity [so soon].

“I think that business travel will not return back to its 2019 level. We’ve seen the alternatives to business travel, and they have proven to be quite productive over the past year. But there will still be certain types of travel that will remain essential for business development, for example relationship management, educational purposes such as training, and so on.”

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