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Return to Travel: Duty of care in a COVID-19 world

Over the last five years, the not-for-profit sector has progressed in its understanding of what a Duty of Care means for the legal and moral responsibilities of employers. 2015 saw the Denis vs NRC case in Oslo and a resultant wakeup call for NGOs, stimulating heightened good-practice awareness. Unfortunately, 2020 has raised new challenges that are threatening to compromise this sense of Duty of Care due to a lack of preparedness and adaptability in organisational risk management. In recent months, clients have asked us how they can feasibly meet their duty of care, when medical risk is now inherent in boarding an aircraft, or in working with communities for whom anti-virus measures are almost impossible. This is a good question, and it’s great that the challenges posed by coronavirus are being carefully considered. Our answer is that, fundamentally, as long as these new risks are assessed alongside the existing ones, of course organisations can still meet their duty of care to their staff.

Here are some key points to take on board as you plan to restart your travel and overseas deployment programmes:

1. Reassess you Risk Appetite - Not only has the financial and funding landscape been transformed, many typically development-focused organisations now find themselves thrust into humanitarian response roles. With such dramatic changes in working practices, it’s important that organisational risk owners take the time to consider whether their risk appetite and/or risk threshold has changed. To achieve organisational goals in this new world, should your staff be expected to take more risks, or fewer?

2. Review policies and procedures - Are they fit for purpose under COVID-19 conditions? If your risk appetite or your working practices have changed, then your policies should be updated to reflect this. Almost certainly, travel authorisation policies will require updating, as well as (but not limited to) staff care and incident management plans.

3. Update your Risk Assessment - Can pre-coronavirus risk assessment approaches be applied to travelling and working abroad in a global pandemic? The short answer is yes. You can risk assess anything using a quality standard format, as long as the available information is good enough. However, comparing the vast and ever-changing Covid-19 indicators to those historically included on a travel risk assessment (e.g. crime, infrastructure, armed violence) for which the sample data is far smaller, and incident data slower moving, we begin to see the difficulty in applying the same methodology to assess Covid-19 risk. See the end of this blog for more information on how to adapt your risk assessment procedures effectively.

4. Remember Informed Consent - ‘Informed consent is a secondee’s agreement to being deployed after all the relevant facts – operational environment and tasks, related risks and mitigating measures, crisis management planning and redress measures – have been presented to him/her.’ Voluntary Guidelines on theDuty of Care to Seconded Civilian Personnel Informed Consent remains central to the Duty of Care equation, and with a change in operational environments around the world due to COVID-19, it is important that staff are aware of the potential risks to health involved with travel, and what your organisation is doing to mitigate them. Utilising an effectiveCovid-19 travel risk assessment tool, combined with any risk appetite or policy changes, will enable you to meet this important demand effectively.

5. Redistribute Funding - You may need to buy extra insurances or training services to ensure that travel can be conducted as safely as possible. Additional funding to pay for private COVID-19 testing to allow staff to travel, or leave quarantine after travel, should be considered. You might decide to set aside a contingency fund to support staff if they do become infected overseas, to support them while they remain in location until any isolation period is complete.

6. Consider Insurance - Many travel insurance policies exclude COVID-19 cover, but some are now starting to include it. If a member of staff becomes seriously ill with COVID-19 while they are on assignment, will your insurers bring them home? Is there an additional excess or premium to consider? It may be worth weighing up your own COVID-19 mitigation procedures and assigned funds against the potentially big expense of evacuating through your insurer. Some agencies are now deciding not to insure against COVID infection. They consider the cost of cover to outweigh the risk of a claim, and are selecting younger, healthier staff to travel, to minimise the requirement for expensive, additional policies. In these cases, enough financial resources are made available to support travelling staff if they do become ill and are forced to remain in isolation overseas.

7. Provide Training - In order to equip staff with the skills to discharge their duties safely, it may be that you need to consider providing some additional travel safety training, or stress management training, that recognises the changed context of business travel and overseas deployment in light of COVID-19.

Effective Risk Assessment in the COVID-19 Landscape

There is a wealth of information freely available online, regularly updated, that will enable you to conduct a risk assessment, but the number of factors that need to be considered, which are changing constantly, make this a complex task. To quantify Covid-19 travel risk, you must ask three questions:

1. Where are you going? - When you consider the prevalence of disease in any given location, you might assess as many as 10 different variable indicators, such as lockdown status, case growth rate, containment percentages, fatality numbers, and cases by population, in order to understand the risk of exposure to the virus.

2. What you are doing when you get there? - You then need to consider what the traveller will be doing in the country, who they will be meeting with, the hotels and transport options they will use, and so on. Also evaluate access to local medical and non-medical support - a key potential mitigator.

3. What is your personal health status? - Lastly, balance the data gathered from the first two questions against the traveller’s personal health status. This can present some challenges, as you need to take into account not only their age and gender but also any pre-existing medical conditions, both physical and psychological.Some might not wish to declare personal details that will potentially increase their vulnerability around contracting or recovering from COVID-19. It is important therefore to enable staff to make confidential health declarations.

Incorporating Covid-19 risk

Factoring a wide range of such dynamic risk indicators into each risk assessmentcould prove difficult (unless the traveller has specific training or experience inconducting research and producing complex travel risk assessments), and mightcreate unacceptable time delays, especially for routine business travel. Thereforewe at ILS recommend investing in a new, smart, fast moving risk assessmentprocedure.
For ILS, this pandemic has brought Duty of Care to the forefront again, andhighlighted the need for organisations to have quality risk management processesin place. The work that our clients do is highly important, and continues in theglobal health crisis. To allow for the protection of staff welfare, and the safe andeffective delivery of humanitarian and development programmes, theorganisations responsible for them must adapt and update in the face ofCOVID-19.

Joe Studley is the Risk Advisory Manager at ILS. He and his team have been working to supportclients returning to travel since the start of the pandemic. The team have developed skills,knowledge and services that can help any organisation grappling with questions around howand when to return to travel, and how this can be done safely. Please drop us a line or visit to find out more.