Many countries continue to grapple with the impact of Covid-19 on their economies with some reimposing strict restrictions on their residents after caseloads rebounded during the winter period in the northern hemisphere. Nonetheless, the commencement of a vaccination programme in many countries offers us hope that the end could be in sight, even if the recent discovery and spread of new variants with greater resistance shows that any recovery remains delicately balanced.
This has led many organisations to set out road maps for the year ahead in terms of business strategies. For many, this has included drafting plans for workers to return to their offices. It has also led organisations to dust off plans for sending staff overseas – whether this on assignment, projects or for short-term business travel. In doing so, organisations will have the welfare of their employees high on their list of priorities and will only allow staff to recommence travel once it is fully safe to do so. In most cases, safety will be greatly enhanced by a person being effectively vaccinated against Covid-19, and it is now widely considered to be preferable for anyone travelling from one country to another to have received their vaccination before doing so. However, can employers require an employee to be vaccinated before travelling for business purposes, or alternatively, can they prevent an unvaccinated employee from travelling abroad?
The first thing to consider is that there is still a severe shortage of vaccine doses available in some locations, and given that the roll-out of vaccines is typically being administered by government authorities, most of whom have established priority lists in terms of who will be vaccinated first, it may be impossible for organisations to force employees to receive Covid-19 vaccinations before relocating or travelling for company business. Secondly, the Covid-19 vaccination programme, as with most other such programmes, is voluntary in most countries worldwide. It is unlikely, therefore, that an organisation could insist on an employee being vaccinated as doing so would probably be illegal.
However, there are important reasons why it would be in the employee’s interests to be vaccinated, and for the employer to prevent an employee who has not been vaccinated from travelling for company business.
Firstly, an organisation has a duty of care to its staff. Consider a scenario where an organisation’s staff have successfully returned to the office in a country where incidences of Covid-19 have been significantly reduced. Subsequently, an employee who has returned to the office is requested to undertake a business trip to a location where there is a potential risk of catching Covid-19 (either through factors such as travelling in close proximity to other people, or if the destination location still has relatively high rates of Covid-19). If the employee catches the virus during the business trip, there is a risk not only to the employee but also that they might transmit the virus to family, friends and colleagues on their return; risks that could be minimised if the employee were to be vaccinated before the trip. While remote working has been widely adopted in response to the pandemic, it would be unfair and possibly impractical for the employee to have to self-isolate and work from home for a period of time often exceeding 14 days after completing only a short business trip. As such, the employer could state that it is advisable for the employee to be vaccinated before undertaking travel. If the employee refuses or, more likely, is unable to be vaccinated, however, the employer, in the interests of safety, could elect not to send the employee on the trip.
But what if the employee is to be sent to a location for a longer period, such as for a long-term assignment? The organisation could, after conducting a risk assessment, feel that sending an unvaccinated employee to a high-risk location presents a risk to the employee. Many organisations presently send potential assignees for medical examinations prior to an assignment and we believe that this policy will be more widely adopted in response to the disruption Covid-19 has caused. Health checks are used to alert the employee and employer of any underlying health risks which may be aggravated by the assignment. For example, these checks can identify respiratory illnesses which may make an assignment to locations with high levels of air pollution life-threatening, or conditions which require regular treatment that may not be readily available in the host location. Therefore, preventing employees who have not been vaccinated from going on an assignment to a location where there is a high risk of Covid-19 infection would be consistent with the existing general policies of many organisations.
Furthermore, the decision regarding whether or not an unvaccinated employee can travel for business purposes may be taken out of the company’s hands. Many countries’ immigration authorities, as well as many airlines, presently request travellers to undergo testing prior to travel in order to prevent the spread of Covid-19 from overseas. As vaccination programmes progress, it will be likely that many countries, while making inoculation for their citizens voluntary, require travellers from elsewhere to show proof of vaccination in order to be able to enter their country. There is a precedent of countries doing this. For example, many countries require people who come from, or have recently travelled to, locations where Yellow Fever is prevalent to provide documentation showing that they have been vaccinated before being allowed into to the country. It is also likely that airlines will require travellers to be vaccinated before being permitted to travel too, at least initially.
Finally, it is also important for HR teams to bear in mind that assignees and business travellers need to act in accordance with the relevant legislation of the host country. As such, if an employee travels, or is assigned, to a location where vaccination against Covid-19 is mandatory for all, the employee will be required to be vaccinated in order to enter (or remain if the order is issued after the employee arrives).
As with all matters concerning the spread of Covid-19 and our efforts to manage its impact, the situation remains fluid and pragmatism is required by HR teams when dealing with its impact on an organisation’s international operations and the mobility of staff between entities. Requiring an employee to be vaccinated in order to travel is unlikely to be legal unless it is a legal requirement in either the employee’s home or host location. However, there are circumstances where an organisation can justifiably be seen to be acting in the interests of the employee, their colleagues and the organisation overall by preventing overseas travel unless the traveller has received an effective vaccination against the virus. As always, having a policy and communicating it clearly will be critical for all employees to understand what the company’s stance on the matter will be.