Dr Charlie Easmon – Medical Director, Your Excellent Health Service
Easmon argued that one problem with travel is the inherently high risk of infectivity on planes and airport buses. “That’s quite a logical thing to happen, because you take all the precautions, you wear all your masks, do all your tests, and then they jam you all in like cattle on the way to the plane.” He warned that this inherent risk will be exacerbated as Covid rules ease.
Easmon also warned that human factors had affected efforts to control the virus, with the inconsistent use of masks, as well as changes to occupational requirements leading to employees coming to work while infected – with Easmon citing such changes to requirements as a key cause of flight cancellations. “A lot of those cancellations were because they had stopped the requirements for people who might be infected…predictably a lot of those people either got ill or infected others.”
He added that the potential for the creation of conspiracy theories around global health crises, warning that ‘some incredibly intelligent people get sucked into conspiracy theories’, enabling misinformation to thrive and creating undesirable effects such as making masks seem ‘undesirable’ or ‘regarded as restrictions on freedom’.
Your Excellent Health Service had also seen cases of people lying about test results and documents of recovery. “We get some of them asking us, ‘I got infected yesterday, is there a place I can go where they can fake a test for me, or can you write me a letter?’”
Easmon also said that another critical challenge to the travel industry was long Covid and its legacy, which afflicts its sufferers with shortness of breath and consequential problems with mobility.
“The estimate is that maybe 10 per cent of those infected will have some legacy from the Covid infection,” he said. “These stories are replicated across many industries, many people, and will have implications for travellers who want to travel but are now in some way disabled. One of the issues will be oxygen provision for those who say that they are breathless walking down stairs, because they will certainly be breathless at the equivalent of 7,000 feet. These effects will have an impact on travellers who want to travel but are in some way now disabled.”
Easmon argued that while the Western world has had ‘great success’ with their vaccination programmes, ‘we know that that success has not been the same in other parts of the world, and that is where part of the problem may be, in the sense that if you leave large parts of the world unprotected from a disease, that creates the potential for a future problem’.
“The virus does mutate…And each time it [mutates] it seems to be increasing its infectious capability. What it isn’t doing is getting more deadly. So that’s a good thing on the one hand,” he said. “But that could lead us into a false sense of security, because it will only take one or two twists of the viral genome to get it the other way, we just don’t know.”
Easmon criticised the efforts of health bodies such as the World Health Organization (WHO), who he felt should have done more to separate the coronavirus threat from other, lesser health problems, and the UK government health advisory Sage, who he felt had perpetuated poor advice such as encouraging handwashing to counteract an airborne virus. He also criticised what he saw as a perceived lack of inter-governmental coordination.
“If you go on the WHO website or Twitter, they’re still talking about every other global health problem that they’re trying to deal with as well,” he said. “I also think that there was a lack of global governance around strategy. You can have a G20 around economics, but there was never a proper G20 about the pandemic.”
Dr Simon Worrell – Global Medical Director, Collinson
Worrell was more optimistic in his view of the future, beginning by saying that ‘I’m going to invite us to turn our backs on Covid’. He noted that many countries were now decreasing the level of their pandemic restrictions – citing the Oxford University Stringency Index, which measures a range of Covid-related control measures.
He added that this reduction in travel restrictions is due to a ‘wide perception of the break in the link between cases and hospitalisations’.
“When we hear about tens of thousands of cases, we have to say to ourselves, ‘how important is this?’ Last week, there were 3,200,000 cases in the UK. That’s astonishing. How many people were ventilated last week because of Covid? 326,” he said. “And if there is this fundamental break between these enormous cases and the very harmful effects, then perhaps it is time to turn away from Covid.”
However, he added that there was a ‘notable exception in China’, which is undergoing a rapid increase in both cases and hospitalisations’. He said, however, that 95 per cent of cases in the country were reported as asymptomatic, with the increase in hospitalisation being attributable primarily to the ‘woefully poor’ vaccination rate among over-80s, rather than due to a mutation which had increased the virus’s harm. He says that only a quarter of the over-80s population of Shanghai – the site of the most recent surge in China – were vaccinated.
Worrell affirmed that ‘travel is returning’ because ‘people are desperate to travel’, and that the decrease in international restrictions and regulations, as well as a reduction in mask mandates at individual airlines and airports, had driven the move towards greater levels of traffic worldwide.
“For anyone who has been on long haul flights lately – it hasn’t been that fun to wear a mask for six hours to Dubai, and all that will be stopping soon,” he said. He added that there had also been a reduced need for airport testing centres, citing that the UK previously had 14, but that the country was in the process of shutting down all of them, as ‘despite the increased number of travellers, the numbers needing tests are going through the floor’.
He added that Collinson had experienced a 300 per cent increase in assistance cases since 2021, as well a 60-per-cent increase compared with pre-pandemic levels, with a shift away from Covid-related cases to more traditional medical concerns such as cardiac emergencies and road traffic incidents.
“As testing and quarantine requirements ease, we can go back to medically escorted repatriations, sending a nurse and a doctor out,” he said. “Previously that was problematic because of all the quarantine requirements.” He added that the change was simplifying operations, enabling Collinson to rely on fewer third-party air ambulance firms, and operate with fewer additional requirements or precautions in place.
Worrell added that in addition to Collinson being able to operate more efficiently and respond to a broader range of repatriations, there had also been ‘increasing concern’ from clients about the welfare of their expatriate employees.
He also warned that although coronavirus may no longer be a threat, there should still be vigilance across the medical, insurance and travel industries regarding the potential of new medical crises to emerge, with a new endemic disease likely to emerge in the next two or three years. He cited the regular emergence of new serious diseases over the past decade, including H1N1 swine flu (2009), MERS (2012), Ebola (2014), Zika (2016), and Covid-19 (2019), adding: “interspersed, we’ve had outbreaks of malaria, cholera, yellow fever, dengue.”
With infectious diseases likely to continue dominating international travel concerns for the coming years, Worrell adds, companies should continue to be prepared for the potential impact of such events. He said that despite companies being ‘exhausted from Covid’, ‘now is the best time to prepare’.
He recommended that companies review their operating procedures and pandemic preparedness, and suggested that clients who demonstrated that they were compliant with precautionary standards could be rewarded with lower premiums.
However, Worrell warned against alarmism, saying that ‘what we need is advice to companies that will tell them what is likely to happen, and not just the worst case scenario,’ adding that ‘almost all worst case scenarios [regarding Covid] have been wrong’.
Lloyd Figgins – CEO, TRIP Group
Figgins said that it was important for businesses across the travel industry to maintain a realistic expectation about where demand will be, and recommended that firms continue to focus on comparing demand with pre-Covid figures and ‘adapt their risk management plans towards that’ to avoid having ‘unrealistic expectations’.
“We need to make sure that we are addressing those pre-Covid levels, because we are not going to get back to those levels, certainly not in the short or medium term.”
“The key areas is looking at those pre-covid levels,” he added. “Too often in the media now we’re used to hearing travel figures with ‘this time last year’ or ‘this time in 2020’. But in 2020 we were in lockdown, so it’s not a fair comparison to say that we have 500 per cent more travellers now than this time in 2020.”
Figgins said that while the pandemic had altered demand for travel substantially, the impact was not evenly distributed, particularly among large organisations. “Every organisation has its own risk appetite,” he said.
He noted that while many businesses are now no longer interested in sending people to places physically at pre-Covid levels due to the widespread rollout of teleconferencing technology – citing figures from one corporate carrier as operating at a level 89 per cent below its pre-Covid capacity, with no interest in increasing that level in the near future – the non-governmental organisation (NGO) has ‘never stopped travelling’.
Figgins says that the appetite of NGOs is different because ‘their work must continue’, adding: “[the TRIP Group] does a lot of training and consultancy for the larger NGOs in [the UK], and they are all preparing in making sure that their staff are properly prepared for travel and are putting systems in place to make sure that they’re protected.”
Figgins also noted: “Travel and tourism is not where it was and it probably won’t be there for another year at least.”
Figgins says that there are a range of barriers to travel which will continue to suppress international travel at levels below the pre-Covid norms. In the case of many businesses, he notes that many of them see the benefits of replacing many business trips with more digital communications due to both the reduced costs involved, and the potential to improve their image regarding sustainability.
The potential financial incentive to travel less is enhanced by rising fuel costs, exacerbated by both the pandemic the war in Ukraine, as well as other conflicts in other parts of the world.
The war in Ukraine has also had a negative effect on travel times, with flights to from western Europe to east Asia now taking several hours longer due to the imposition of flight restrictions by both Western and Russian governments, which in turn raises fuel costs further and disincentivises travel. In addition, the conflict has the potential to reduce consumer confidence due to fears about incidents such as the 2014 shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) during the 2014 Russia-Ukraine crisis.
Figgins also added: “The requirements for assistance provision has never been greater, but we’re seeing a lot of people coming into the market who are pretty new to it, and pretty naïve to it.”
He said that there is a risk that these providers may not be ‘fit for purpose’ and suggests that collaboration is required to ‘make sure the bar is not lowered’.
Figgins argues that the importance of assistance providers, and in particular in the fields of personal security services and the provision of safe accommodation and transport, will only increase as economic woes continue to worsen worldwide post-pandemic.
Figgins, a former police officer, argued that as economic woes worsen, levels of crime tend to increase. “That is happening whether in [the UK] or in other destination countries – crime will increase as that cost of living disaster goes forward.”
He also argued that the rapid growth of cybercrime during the pandemic, as well as worsening international relationships between countries, there was an increasingly important need for strong digital security when travelling.
“We need to make sure from an organisational point of view that when we travel we have a robust cybersecurity strategy, and when you’re travelling to countries such as Russia or China, getting a virtual private network (VPN) connection now is next to important,” he said. “You have to use some form of state login, and that will give them access to pretty much anything you have on your laptop, so it is a case of travelling with clean devices and having those devices checked when you return.”