The risk of employees catching the virulent coronavirus is prompting global corporations to ban international business travel, a move that will put significant pressure on airlines and associated businesses.
Business travel to and from Australia is likely to plummet over the next few months as corporations restrict employees’ movements, particularly on airlines, with global business services firm EY and developer Lendlease among firms introducing strict travel bans.
Some corporations have cancelled all business travel to Asia.Credit:AP
“We’ve taken the decision to cancel all business travel to Asia and all non-essential business travel to other destinations globally,” a spokesman for Lendlease said.
The $10 billion multinational construction, property and infrastructure company, which has about 13,000 employees, has projects in Australia, North America, Europe and Asia.
“In addition, we’re asking our people to reconsider travel within Australia where meetings can otherwise be conducted using digital tools, including video conferencing,” it said.
Apart from the human toll, the coronavirus outbreak – it was recently named COVID-19 by the World Health Organisation – is having an amplifying economic impact around the world, disrupting global supply chains and trade.
Business events and conferences dependent on international travel are also being cancelled.
Multinational technology conglomerate Cisco this week pulled the pin on its Cisco Live Melbourne conference because of ongoing concerns about the coronavirus outbreak. The event was originally scheduled to take place from March 3 to March 6.
“This was a very difficult decision and not one that we took lightly,” Cisco said.
“Our number one priority is ensuring the safety of all attendees and we strongly believe this is the right decision given the current circumstances.”
Companies have also been swift to isolate employees exposed by travel to China.
Industrial property juggernaut Goodman Group advised staff who recently visited, passed through, or had a stopover in China, not to come to work until they have a medical clearance certificate from their GP or have been back in Australia at least 14 days.
“We haven’t yet had anyone identify themselves as at risk,” the company noted.
Steve Bell, health and safety practice leader and a partner with international law firm Herbert Smith Freehills, said businesses are required to continually think about what may harm their workers and take reasonable steps to mitigate that.
“This is a potentially fatal virus and the circumstances are not fully known about whether healthy people can die from it or not,” Mr Bell said.
“A business that knowingly exposes a worker to that risk has potential liability under criminal health and safety laws or is at risk of being sued in the civil courts,” he said.
The coronavirus is likely to eat into cash flow at Australian carriers Qantas and Virgin.
At the peak of the SARS pandemic, passenger travel in the Asia Pacific fell 45 per cent and Qantas’ international traffic slumped 11 per cent, UBS analysts said.
A similar impact from coronavirus would hit Qantas and Virgin’s bottom line to the tune of $500 million, UBS estimates. Other companies, such as Sydney and Melbourne airports, are also likely to be adversely affected.
EY’s Oceania people partner Kate Hillman said the firm was “closely monitoring the situation" and the safety and wellbeing of staff was its primary concern.
“We have asked all EY people to defer all international travel in and out of mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau and to find alternative ways of connecting,” she said.
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