Last reviewed 15 July 2021

The threat of the virus and the uncertainty around travel restrictions pose a significant challenge for organisations whose employees normally travel overseas for work. Mike Sopp advises on how to manage the risks for necessary travel.

Partly due to the success of the ongoing UK vaccination programme, the Government has decided to relax domestic restrictions aimed at reducing the spread of the Covid-19 virus.

However, one area where restrictions may continue is in relation to overseas travel both for leisure and work purposes. Developments in this area remain dynamic and uncertain.

As such, it is important that employers have in place a robust framework for managing risks associated with COVID and working overseas.

Travel factors

There are a number of factors to take into account when considering sending employees overseas during the pandemic including:

  • current UK travel restrictions

  • any travel exemptions that may exist for work purposes

  • restrictions placed on travel by the country or countries of destination

  • whether the travel is deemed essential.

Each home nation has responsibility for determining what travel restrictions to apply, so organisations should make reference to the respective home nation guidance to determine what overseas travel is permissible.

These rules are based upon a well-publicised traffic light system, whereby travel to amber and red list countries requires certain measures to be taken when returning to the UK, including quarantining and undertaking of tests for Covid-19.

In England, the guidance on travelling abroad states that “there are no longer any restrictions on leaving England to travel internationally” but that “to protect public health in the UK and vaccine rollout, you should not travel to countries or territories on the red or amber lists”.

There are some workers and work activities that are exempt from some or all Covid-19 travel and entry requirements because of the nature of the job, such as aircraft crew, broadcasting, offshore workers, etc. This list and exemptions can be found at GOV.UK.

Clearly, even where travel is permissible, the country of destination may have restrictions. For example, even though Australia is on the Green List, current Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) travel advice is that “entry to Australia is currently closed to most arrivals” with some exemptions. Click here for further information on country-specific restrictions.

The final factor is whether travel is essential. FCDO guidance notes that for Red and Amber list countries “the FCDO advises against all but essential travel... based on the current assessment of Covid-19 risks”.

According to the FCDO, “whether travel is essential or not is your own decision” and that “only you can make an informed decision based on your own individual circumstances and the risks”.

Pre-travel risk assessment

If you decide to go ahead with the trip, the organisation will have a duty of care to the employee in relation to Covid-19. Case law has upheld this position. In the case of Palfrey v ARC Offshore Ltd (2001) the court found the employer in breach of its duty of care when an employee died from malaria while overseas. The employer had advised its employee to find out about vaccinations and medications before leaving but he had not done so. The court said that the employer had a minimum responsibility to ascertain and make available to the employee publicly available information on health hazards.

Where overseas travel is part of normal work activities, the organisation should already have in place a robust framework for managing risks. This could be based upon best practice such as that found in PAS 3001:2016 Travelling for Work. Responsibilities of an Organization for Health, Safety and Security. Code of Practice.

Risk assessment procedures for overseas travel and work should of course take account of the risks associated with Covid-19 and the necessary risk control measures required. Factors that may have to be taken into account include the:

  • current state of the coronavirus pandemic in the country/region of destination (including effectiveness of management)

  • rules in the destination country that need to be adhered to relating to Covid-19 control, including vaccination requirements, social restrictions, hygiene rules, quarantine, testing, etc

  • arrangements, safety measures and restrictions in place involved with transportation, accommodation and work environments in the country of destination

  • health care and insurance arrangements in the event of an employee becoming ill with Covid-19 while abroad

  • characteristics of the individual/s required to travel that may make them more susceptible to Covid-19, including whether they have been vaccinated or not.

Case law in previous overseas work-related accidents suggests that as part of the duty of care, employers will need to make reasonable enquiries as part of the risk assessment process as to the above matters.

Good sources of information include the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office website and the websites of the embassies of the respective countries of destination.

Having determined that the risk control measures to be taken are reducing risks to as low as reasonably practicable, the employer will need to ensure that employees travelling and working overseas are fully trained on the measures to be taken to reduce the risk of becoming infected with Covid-19 including any contingency arrangements. This should include on how they can keep up to date with changing situations in relation to the coronavirus while abroad.

Overseas and return

Whileemployees are overseas, the employer should have a process in place to maintain regular communication with them. The purpose of this is to:

  • seek assurance that the Covid-19 “risk profile” is as expected

  • ensure the risk control measures required are being implemented

  • protect the welfare, safety and wellbeing of employees

  • provide employees with information on any changes in Covid-19 risk control measures necessary (based upon dynamic risk assessing)

  • implement, where necessary, contingency plans for significant scenarios that cannot be managed through the risk control measures currently implemented.

With the Covid-19 situation in constant flux, it is essential that the employer and employees continually review the risk profile and adapt risk control measures accordingly.

However, there may be certain circumstances where the situation requires the implementation of a contingency plan. As such, employers should prepare such a plan as part of the overall risk management of overseas travel and work.

In terms of Covid-19, scenarios that may require contingency planning include:

  • employees testing positive and/or becoming significantly ill with Covid-19 while away from their home country

  • significant changes in the pandemic and how it is managed in the host country (eg border closures delaying their return)

  • significant changes to the host countries listing by the UK and requirements for returning to the UK in terms of testing and quarantine.

A key element of the overall risk management for Covid-19 will be planning for a return to the UK. The requirements will depend upon the countries’ listing on the traffic light system and any exemptions allowed for certain work activities as noted above.

This may include having to arrange for a Covid-19 test before leaving the host country, which should form part of the overall risk control system. Other measures may include:

  • booking a managed quarantine hotel

  • submitting a passenger locator form

  • booking of further Covid-19 tests once home.

Finally, employers should review any overseas travel activities on a regular basis to ensure that the procedures remain appropriate and to learn lessons.

Summary

Overseas travel and work remain severely restricted at the present time. However, as restrictions ease and businesses try to return to normality the need for overseas travel for work purposes may increase.

Employers will need to take a risk-based approach to managing risks from Covid-19 if employees are to be required to travel overseas. The risks associated with overseas travel and work will be fluid and dynamic.

Using a framework such as PAS 3001 will enable organisations to manage risks in the same manner as other work activities and enable the employer to continue to meet its duty of care to employees travelling and working overseas.

Further information

  • Managing the Safety, Health and Security of Mobile Workers: An Occupational Safety and Health Practitioner’s Guide, IOSH and International SOS Foundation.

  • PAS 3001:016 Travelling for Work. Responsibilities of an Organization for Health, Safety and Security. Code of Practice, BSI.