The business travel insurance landscape has been massively impacted by the global COVID-19 pandemic. Business travel came to a screeching halt by March 2020, with many individuals self-selecting themselves out of the skies due to concerns over health risks and potential exposure to the virus, and many employers calling time on business travel in order to keep their employees safe. At the same time, governments around the world closed their borders, imposed quarantines, issued isolation orders, and limited group gathering sizes, thus making the prospect of business travel for in-person meetings almost impossible.
Over the past 10 months, there has been a fundamental reduction, if not temporary elimination, of business travel exposure. While the short-term COVID-19 situation remains very fluid and uncertain, historic pandemics suggest that things will eventually return to normal, and, when they do, business travel will pick back up again. Most forecasts are pushing this "return" well into 2021 and 2022, but it's never too soon for companies to start planning and thinking about how they can best protect their employees in a post-COVID world.
"I think the recovery of business travel is already underway, but it's very early in the process, and it's going to take a long time," said John Thompson, division president, International Accident & Health at Chubb. "There continues to be a substantial amount of apprehension by employees to be on the road, and even more concern among employers to allow travel for work. In the early phases of recovery, all business travel will be essential travel only; there will be no discretionary trips. Travel patterns will be dictated where infection prevalence is the lowest, where travel is the most available, where borders are open, where there are no quarantine orders, and where offices are open for meetings and that kind of thing."
Some major international corridors like Singapore and Hong Kong are already planning ways to spur business travel with what they call a travel bubble. This travel bubble would grant travelers easier access between Singapore and Hong Kong, subject to negative COVID testing on both sides of the trip, and it would eliminate their need for quarantine.
"As individuals and employers start to think about business travel, prevention will continue to be of the utmost importance," stressed Thompson. "Individuals must do everything possible to minimize their exposure to the virus. Following [government] guidelines should be second nature at this point for anybody that has returned to the office or is interacting in society in any meaningful way.
"Employers need to continue to properly monitor the prevalence of infection rates by geography, knowing where they can safely allow employees to go, while also staying on top of the controls and policies at home and at the business travel destinations. They may have to favor certain travel providers, airlines and hotels that are known to have stricter or better controls in place. They might also consider private transfer, as opposed to mass transit, and it almost certainly will mean a restriction of entertainment activities, including dining out. And then, we will also see a continued defaulting to virtual meetings instead of in-person meetings wherever possible. That's something we're all living with and succeeding with at this at this point."
What COVID-19 has done is place even greater emphasis on an employer's duty of care to its employees. Employers have an important duty of care to ensure employees are safely treated if they get sick while traveling for work. This is where business travel insurance comes in. With this coverage, employers can give their employees peace of mind while traveling, with the knowledge that they will have access to care, funding for care, and on-demand assistance from professionals who can connect them with qualified medical professionals in whatever jurisdiction they're traveling. COVID-19, as a known event, is now just one of a long list of communicable diseases and acute illnesses that individuals could be exposed to while traveling for business. If an employee does fall sick from COVID-19 while making a formal engagement for their employer, then most business travel insurance policies will respond.
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"In the COVID world, there's more acute focus on the employer's duty of care, and even more awareness that things can go wrong," said Thompson. "Before COVID, people would travel for business and not really think about the risks because nothing's ever happened to them before. But in this COVID world, it's impossible not to pay attention to the risks.
"Best practice duty of care requires continual education for corporate clients. When they put an employee on a plane or ask them to travel across the country and spend two or three weeks away from home, there's a burden that goes along with that, and there's exposure. At Chubb, we partner with an organization called International SOS, which provides best-in-class security, evacuation and medical assistance for individuals that are traveling overseas. Our business travel insurance coverage pairs alongside International SOS's services in a really seamless way to respond to the employer's duty of care and make sure that things go the best way possible. If something unanticipated, unforeseen or unwanted happens to a traveling employee, whether it's sickness, illness, or accident, we're there for them."