The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on employers’ duty of care on a global scale like never before. Here, International SOS’ Dr Rodrigo Rodriguez- Fernandez and Security Director, James Bird, highlight some key lessons learned.

Prior to the pandemic, many companies saw evacuation as an unlikely event. However, when it took hold, organisations suddenly faced a huge movement issue with their employees – one that many had not planned or prepared for. Many of their employees around the world were left stranded, unable to

use commercial flights or even land routes to return home. Both medical and non-medical evacuations are complex at the best of times, and this is exacerbated with border closures and quarantines.

Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, International SOS has arranged evacuations for over 2,000 passengers – and their pets in some cases, including 12 cats and five dogs. Our 35-year history in evacuations and logistical expertise has been critical supporting governments and commercial entities to repatriate their people.

Through our work and insights, we have identified some key lessons to guide how organisations should operate during moments of crisis.

CONTINGENCY PLANNING IS ESSENTIAL Maintaining up-to-date contingency plans is a key part of preparing for any crisis, highlighting mitigating actions an organisation needs to undertake with particular urgency. When it comes to evacuations specifically, centralised information is particularly critical. Organisations need to be able to quickly understand where their assets and people actually are.

BE FLEXIBLE Even if a company spends the correct amount of time

updating and evaluating contingency plans, crises are naturally unpredictable. They often cause situations that could only have been partly accounted for at the planning stage, which generates the need for businesses to be prepared to be flexible in their response.

This was particularly the case for one of the recent evacuations we organised, which saw 81 people repatriated to the United States from Peru. We identified charter options, but the landing permits required Peruvian government approval, which had recently issued a rapid lockdown with restrictions on outbound commercial air traffic. We therefore liaised with US Embassy contacts to send a diplomatic note to the Peruvian government in an effort to gain approval. Although one permit was approved for the city of Cusco, it arrived too late for the operator to fly. At this point, we


were able to use our embassy contacts to secure spots on US government flights from Lima and Cusco.

To respond to a crisis successfully, organisations need to be goal orientated, understanding that there may be multiple routes to achieve objectives.

CLEAR COMMUNICATION IS KEY During a crisis, it is never more important that employees understand what is going on and what exactly is expected of them – good communication is at the heart of this. Internal and external messages need to be clear, concise and consistent, cutting through the noise and misinformation which is often associated with large catastrophic events.

External communication is particularly important for our evacuations support, as often the process required communication with different international governments and regulatory bodies. For instance, we carried out the first repatriation of a Chinese national with confirmed COVID-19 back to mainland China. The evacuation itself required authorisation from both the Chinese government and Nigerian authorities. Continuous communication with both governments was needed and resulted in a successful evacuation.

DUTY OF CARE FOR ALL The pandemic has resulted in changes in Duty to Care that are here to stay. Organisations must have visibility of their responsibilities and strategies in place to protect all their people, and their business. This is critically important as a lack of Duty of Care can result in employee harm, business reputation risk and even legal implications. The ability to evacuate and repatriate has taken a greater importance as the need has increased during the pandemic and is potentially going to impact a greater number of employees, whether it is needed for health, security or for those needing to return home.

No crisis is the same and there is never going to be a perfect playbook telling you what to do at every stage. Organisations should, however, understand that there are clear principles which inform good practice. Appreciating this is key during a crisis, as companies need to take steps to ensure that they are doing what’s best for their employees. Evacuations may happen at the last minute but successful evacuation strategies are months or years in the planning.

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