From digital health passports to managing ongoing travel restrictions and from vaccination requirements to assessing the impact on travel insurance, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has created a legal minefield for the business events industry. And with restrictions and requirements constantly shifting around the world, planning events may seem akin to hitting a moving target.
Digital health or ‘vaccine’ passports — which could contain details of vaccine credentials, Covid-19 tests and travellers’ identities, have been mooted as a possible way to kick-start the business events industry, enabling people to travel and meet safely.
For Oscar Cerezales, MCI chief strategy officer and chief operating officer Asia Pacific, health passports will let the region recover faster, and could be beneficial for each country’s economy. At the same time, he says, the lack of health passports will fuel digital experiences even more, which could help develop the industry in other ways.
“As for risks, maintaining data privacy is still an issue for specific countries and organisations in our region,” he adds. “One of the main questions is who owns this data and provides for its safety. Another concern for the APAC region is to define a cross-country organisation which can issue health passports. It is still unclear which institution has the resources and trust to do this.”
Razlan Manjaji, director, global events, audience growth at South China Morning Post, says linking digital passports to vaccination status will help revive business and personal travel.
“While this is certainly desirable, it would require cross-border collaboration to systemise such an approach and establish compatible definitions necessary to allow frictionless travel to take place,” he says. “Putting such a system in place will take considerable time, hence all eyes are on discussions around ‘vaccine bubbles’ or ‘travel bubbles’ in the interim.”
He adds that as with any digital service, there will always be a degree of risk around data privacy and security.
“Privacy protection of individuals needs to be designed and communicated to end users so that they know what they are — and are not — sharing with different stakeholders, just like when you are using any digital services,” he says.
Views on vaccination
As to whether businesses could restrict employees from travelling if they have not received the vaccine or are in the ‘high risk’ category, MCI’s Cerezales says that “sometimes, it is not the initiative of a particular business but that of the insurance company”.
“In some countries, you can’t ‘force’ vaccination due to local regulations,” he says. “As for companies’ internal policies, you should solve issues like this case by case. For example, you can discuss with the non-vaccinated employee that he/she will be less involved in the next project or his/her potential role will be less important due to inability to travel.”
It’s a view shared by Bert Li, associate director of AV and events production at Amway, who believes it is down to employees to make the decision and that they should not be discriminated against.
“But if the employee is involved in the front end [of an event] or in contact with other people, they should get vaccinated,” he says. “Or they can change to another position that is not customer-facing, which would be safer for them and other people.”
Jorge Mesa, director, global crisis management at BCD Travel says that many governments have measures in place so that people who are not vaccinated will not be discriminated against when travelling.
“Where countries have eased restrictions for fully vaccinated travellers, those who are not vaccinated may continue to travel, as long as they adhere to relevant testing and quarantine rules,” he says. “How companies react to these situations depends on local jurisdiction; different countries have different laws. Each company should consult their HR and legal teams to determine the best approach given the fluid and evolving nature of these issues.”
Mesa believes that rather than mandating any particular action, like a vaccination, employers should provide explanations of how the advantages of vaccination and travelling with a digital health pass outweigh the disadvantages. Mandating would cross the ethical line and may have data privacy and legal implications and could also create negative publicity for the mandating company.
With regards to the implications for travel insurance, Mesa says that coverage differs per country and companies themselves might have different criteria for cover.
“Employers should review their current coverage and how they provide support if something happens,” he says. “They should cover Covid-19 medical treatment at the destination or medical repatriation if needed and provide advice if the destination has facilities that can offer this support.”
He gives the example of how, when India was overwhelmed with Covid-19 cases, hospitals, even private ones, were short of oxygen and medicines. Even with insurance, medical assistance may not be available in such cases. Furthermore, companies should check with their insurer what’s covered and what is exempt, as some insurances have exclusions for pandemics, while others have changed coverage since the onset of the disease.
Jo Sully, vice president and regional general manager for Asia Pacific at American Express Global Business Travel says that “what we can do and what we have been doing is working closely with our clients to optimise their travel programmes and provide them with advice to minimise disruption where possible”.
And if a case of Covid-19 is detected at a meeting, whether employers can make vaccination mandatory will depend on local jurisdiction. As BCD Travel’s Mesa points out, a good approach is to manage risks in advance and have protocols in place, such as testing participants before, during and after the meeting.
“In general, companies should follow the recommendations of the specific in-country health departments for cases like this,” he says.
As South China Morning Post’s Ranjaji stresses, coronavirus vaccination remains a question of government policy, industry mandate and individual circumstances, so clarifying vaccination safety, education and employee empathy should be the main focus.