The changes that the global pandemic has brought to the world are still being defined. The one constant is the need to reexamine every process in light of a barrage of new and changing information.
There will be added variables along the process map of all services. These potential fail points and possible bottlenecks make planning essential to avoid further increasing costs and timelines. From the destination services perspective, critical new elements will have an impact in three key areas: visa/immigration, arrival in-country, and quarantine requirements.
Visa & Immigration
Visa and Immigration will start and perhaps stop again at different times and locations around the world. Depending on the country, visa processing has been halted or slowed for a variety of reasons. The resumption of immigration services will be more of a journey than an event.
In countries such as Korea, where visa processing has begun again, processing times have more than doubled. How a government prioritizes what gets processed first will also impact assignee timelines. In Australia, applications for exemptions to arrival restrictions are being addressed first, which will significantly delay applications for business. Progress along the relocation process will also impact assignee timelines. Malaysia is only processing applications received before the lockdown and not accepting any new applications.
The pandemic has also created novel situations. Many foreigners have overstayed visas due to border closures in either or both the home and host country. Immigration office closures or slowdowns have also caused missed renewals. Most host countries have auto-renewed visas, automatically extended stay permits, and suspended the fees and penalties for violations. When borders reopen, governments will need to decide how best to manage these unique situations, adding to the backlog of immigration work.
Once it is possible to cross borders again more freely, there may be limited ways of getting there. Airlines are eager to begin increasing flights and resuming travel routes, but governments are not moving quite as quickly. In 2018, there were 61 nonstop routes between China and the US alone. Under current restrictions, US airlines are only permitted one route a week into China. Cathay Pacific, based out of Hong Kong, operated at just 3% of its capacity in April and May. Only as of June, 2 will foreign nationals again be allowed to transit through Changi Airport, ranked number 19 in the world’s busiest airports, and a vital aviation hub as a first step to reopening air travel. Hong Kong has recently announced limited transit services as well.
Even as the number of flights increases, there may be limitations that last for years created by the new need for social distancing. Carriers are implementing social distancing-style seating arrangements, suspending in-flight service, performing temperature checks of passengers, and requiring the wearing of face masks. Distancing pre-departure and upon arrival will also need to occur, which could mean fewer flights landing or taking off at the same time. Fewer seats and fewer flights eventually will lead to higher prices as the demand increases.
Even with a flight secured, there will be a growing list of additional requirements for pre-departure and arrival that could impact the timeline.
Before this last round of border closures, several countries had implemented certain requirements around health testing. Myanmar required laboratory evidence of absence of CVOID-19 infection issued no more than 72 hours prior to departure. Macau also has mandated the submission of a negative COVID-19 test administered by a medical authority as a requirement to board any flight to the country. Singapore required the completion of a health declaration online to qualify for arrival. In addition to the medical certificate, Cambodia required proof of medical insurance worth at least USD 50,000.
Once on the ground, passengers will face additional health screenings, which are likely to include temperature checks and testing for the virus. The PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test involves a medical professional taking a nasopharyngeal swab is most commonly specified.
The last great hurdle is quarantine. To test positive upon arrival usually means a minimum 14 day stay at a designated facility or hospital. Quarantine, typically a 14 day period was a common requirement across all our countries. How the quarantine was carried out depended on location and stipulations had started to change. Initially, mandatory self-quarantines were in regular use. Some came with monitoring and some without, and the site permitted have been home, hotel, or serviced apartment. Unfortunately, there were some globally well-publicized instances of foreigners in Asia breaking the rules. A Briton in Korea faced jail time and large fines, an Australian in China was deported and fired from her job, and a US pilot was sentenced to four weeks in a Singapore jail all for breaking quarantine.
Increasingly countries require that quarantine be carried out in a government facility or government-mandated facility. Some countries also specified that arrivals would be required to pay for the costs of their quarantine residence and food. Brunei had set a BND 1,000 fee to cover the expenses of COVID-19 testing and the quarantine facility. Arrivers into Korea without a residence will be quarantined in a residential government-directed location and charged KRW 100,000 per day, including meals.
What additional measures will be put into place as borders open remains to be seen. Also, falling under the unknown is where we will see “travel bubbles” or groups of countries setting visa agreements amongst themselves or companies making agreements with governments to move essential workers.
There’s plenty of talk and anticipation about a “Surge” of activity when lockdowns end and borders open. The surge of assignees may not look like the imagined runners at the starting gate heading for airports. The backlog is unlikely to hit all relocation providers at once, although the supply chain is ready and waiting eagerly for business to return.
Most helpful now would be the identification of assignments in the pipeline combined with communication and coordination with the supply chain. How many employees have accepted the offer, but no other steps have been taken? How many have started the visa application process? How many have received the visa approval, but are waiting for borders to open? How many are in-country ready for lockdowns to end? There are no absolute numbers or timing in our new reality, but this information will help position everyone involved in the best manner possible.