As vaccination rates continue to grow, being fully protected against Covid-19 is increasingly proving a key that opens doors - be it international borders, events or restaurants - that otherwise remain closed, or at least difficult to breach, for the unvaccinated.
Corporate policies regarding vaccination as a condition of employment and, in this arena, as a prerequisite for business travel, have not surprisingly come under the spotlight, with the issue coming to the fore as a result of a leaked memo sent to staff of JP Morgan Chase & Co. In it, the bank said it would not permit business travel for US employees who are unvaccinated or have not disclosed their vaccination status. Like many employers, it has urged employees to get their jabs but has not mandated it.
The bank is not alone. An October survey by the GBTA of more than 500 business travel professionals found 40 per cent of respondents' organisations require employees to be fully vaccinated in order to travel for business and/or meet clients or customers face-to-face.
"Safety and duty of care continue to be of utmost importance to our members, who overwhelmingly support vaccine programmes as well as smart travel policies to ensure a safe return to business travel, meetings and events," said GBTA chief executive Suzanne Neufang.
However, there was a marked contrast between respondents on opposite sides of the Atlantic, with notably more organisations in North America than in Europe likely to implement such a policy. On the other hand, the same survey found European business travel professionals are more likely to support government policies that require vaccination for a range of travel-related activities than their North American counterparts are.
"Whilst a number of firms in the US, including airlines, have come out with strong positions around vaccines, employers getting involved in the detail of employees' medical records is an uncomfortable topic for most European companies," said independent consultant Chris Pouney.
"In Europe, rather than clear mandates and company positions, companies are needing to create softer influence models, including self - and likely voluntary - attestation of health and status by employees, for example," he adds.
So why the contrast? Contrasting attitudes to data privacy and employment law are among the explanations. "In the UK, vaccination remains a personal choice. Nobody can be compelled - by their employers, the government or anyone else - to have the vaccine. Nonetheless, employers will be exploring the steps they can take to improve vaccination rates among staff," says Joseph Lappin, partner and head of the employment department at London-based law firm Stewarts.
"Insisting that all staff are vaccinated on health and safety grounds is risky. Despite the push by the government to encourage vaccination, it is unlikely that many employers will go down this route. We believe this could give rise to complaints - and possibly litigation - by employees against their employers."
However, employers may consider carrying out a risk assessment and decide that the damage caused by an outbreak of Covid-19 among staff could be crippling to their business, especially if an outbreak would lead to a temporary closure or inability to meet customer demand, says Lappin, enabling employers to instruct staff to be vaccinated.
ASSESSING THE RISK
Employers can approach business travel in the same way and assess trips on a case-by-case basis. "My instinct is that some employers may insist, having carried out a risk assessment, that travel to certain destinations with rising or high Covid infection rates should be reserved for those who are fully vaccinated," says Lappin.
"An employer might consider that the risks of an unvaccinated individual travelling for business purposes to a high-risk location is too high. This means those who are not vaccinated may miss out."
But there are additional considerations. Although an employer may refuse foreign travel, for example, by someone with a serious health condition visiting a destination with a high infection rate, "employers should tread carefully because if a health condition amounts to a disability then excluding a member of staff from a business trip may amount to disability discrimination," Lappin explains.
The second point he raises is the EU and UK's data protection laws, with GDPR regulations applying to all employers in the EU and UK.
"Although vaccination data needs more protection because it is sensitive, employers should normally be entitled to ask their staff if they have received the Covid-19 jab," says Lappin.
"Collecting this data is likely to be necessary to comply with an employer's health and safety obligations and to draw up a vaccine strategy. Unless employees are working from home full-time and will never attend the workplace where they will come into close contact with colleagues, customers and clients, employers should be entitled to understand what their risk level is."
If blanket vaccination-related travel policies are difficult to implement, what are corporates doing instead? As Chris Pouney notes, says many are vocally recommending employees get jabbed and relying on voluntary disclosure of vaccination status.
An EMEA-based travel manager for a US-headquartered company told BTN Europe they had implemented an informal pre-trip approvals process but had no particular vaccination-related policies.
"As an organisation we've not got a policy around vaccination, but we of course strongly encourage it. We're not saying you have to have a vaccine but rather that you have to abide by the airline regulations or destination entry requirements," they explain.
The buyer, who wished to remain anonymous, added: "What we wouldn't do is send anyone to a country where they'd have to quarantine on arrival and that is impacted largely by which vaccine or how many shots they've had. That's our global policy; not just in Europe."
Their organisation does not require employees to disclose their vaccination status, but the travel manager "absolutely" believes the majority of regular travellers are vaccinated against Covid-19. "Apart from the obvious health reasons for getting jabbed, if you're a regular business traveller and you're not vaccinated it's going to make travel very difficult."
Another buyer, with global responsibility for their organisation's travel needs, shares a similar view. "The majority of our employees who are travelling have done it for years and, realistically, being vaccinated going forward is the only way they'll have an element of freedom to travel. Most of them didn't need any persuasion [to get vaccinated] and, like most people, travel would not have been their primary motive."
Nevertheless, the organisation does have an internal policy around vaccination in some locations - not specifically for travel activity, but for all employees. "Broadly speaking we as a business would struggle to operate unless people are vaccinated. There is great emphasis within the business to get people vaccinated and we're doing quite well."
Employment law specialist Lappin says employers are well within their rights to run education campaigns for their staff highlighting the benefits and risks of getting vaccinated but offers a word of caution: "If an employee feels that they are coming under unreasonable pressure to get vaccinated against their wishes, they could resign on the grounds that their employer has breached trust and confidence between them and claim constructive unfair dismissal," he explains.
A recent survey by the Global Business Travel Association identified contrasting attitudes to vaccination-related travel policies among European and North American business travel professionals.
Only 24 per cent of European respondents said their company requires employees to be fully vaccinated in order to travel or meet clients compared to 38 per cent in North America.
The figures contrasted sharply with those indicating support for government policies that require proof of full vaccination for a number of travel-related policies, with Europeans more in favour of such actions than their North American counterparts in all areas.
For example, 78 per cent of European travel professionals, compared to 70 per cent of North American respondents, would support a government mandate that required passengers flying internationally to be fully vaccinated. The biggest difference in attitudes came in relation to hotel stays, where 67 per cent of European participants would support full vaccination as a requirement to stay compared to 42 per cent in North America.
While European business travel professionals are apparently more in favour of policies that require vaccination, it's also clear that it's actually North American corporates that are more likely to implement vaccination-related policies for staff returning to offices, travelling on business and meeting with clients.
Policies and attitudes to vaccination are not just internal - there is evidence that corporates might favour travel suppliers taking a harder line on vaccination among both employees and customers.
In the aforementioned GBTA poll, asked whether they were more likely to contract with suppliers who require guests and/or passengers to prove they are vaccinated, 38 per cent of buyers said yes, 38 per cent answered no, and the remaining 23 per cent were undecided.
One travel manager told BTN Europe that making vaccination-related supplier decisions "just wouldn't work in our regulated procurement environment". They added: "Personally speaking, I don't think it would affect my choice of airline as a traveller."
In the US, many airlines are being directed down a path in which employees must be vaccinated as a condition of employment, with President Biden issuing an executive order requiring federal employees and contractors, which includes airline workers, to be protected against Covid-19. Companies with more than 100 employees must also require workers to be vaccinated or implement weekly testing regimes.
In mid-October, Delta's 'compliance rate' among employees was reportedly up to 85 per cent after it had initially held out against the mandate, while United's has passed 96 per cent.
North of the border, the Canadian government has gone one step further by requiring all passengers flying within the country to have had at least their first shot of a Covid-19 vaccine.
In Europe, Air Baltic announced on 15 November that all active staff - nearly 1,500 people - have been vaccinated (or have recovered from Covid-19 in the last six months) following the introduction of a mandatory vaccination policy in October.
It took the decision to "ensure undisrupted operations as an increasing number of countries require proof of vaccination for air crews". A number of other European airlines are requiring vaccination among all cabin crew and frontline staff, including Lufthansa, Swiss and Wizz Air.
"Corporates understandably want the best possible travelling environments for their employees so it is not hard to see a situation where there is direction at source for TMCs to look to suppliers with proven policies and a track record in place," says Matt Gatenby, senior partner and head of litigation at Travlaw.
"TMCs similarly will want to provide the best service to their clients so objectives will align. Whether that desire filters through to a situation where there is a demand for suppliers with, for instance, a hard line on vaccination for their own employees as well as travellers remains to be seen. Making that kind of requirement a contractual one is not out of the question, but does raise a lot of legal issues to consider along the way."