There was no playbook for how to respond to a global pandemic. For more than two years, the world was in a crisis. Issuing authorities saw a huge reduction in applications for travel documents as COVID-19 reduced international travel from COVID-19. Many of these “missing” applications returned in large numbers as international travel began to recover, leading to service disruptions in many countries.
The ICAO Implementation and Capacity Building Working Group (ICBWG) developed a plan to document the lessons learned and recommendations that issuing authorities could use to begin or expand their preparations for a surge in travel document applications. Not being prepared would risk lengthy delays for customers, raw material and other supply chain shortages, and financial and other strategic consequences as the volume of applications would become overwhelming.
How issuing authorities receive, process and issue travel documents varies greatly across the globe, but there are some common precautions to consider. National experts will be able to assess which of these are relevant and can help to develop local responses.
Due to the pandemic, there were supply chain constraints that affected the physical material required for travel documents. One example right now is the lack of chips. An issuing authority has an obligation to provide a travel document when a person applies for this document, yet there are issuing authorities in some countries that can only meet the demands with a significant delay.
Issuing authorities need to arrange with their suppliers to ensure there is sufficient stock of both semi-finished (chips, paper, polycarbonate) and final products to answer the need for documents. There is also a possibility to use multiple suppliers for certain raw materials or products like the chip, so they can be sourced alternately.
Another common example is the shortage of staff who are able to process the applications for travel documents by issuing authorities. During the lockdowns, in most countries, personnel from application centres or issuing authorities were redeployed or laid off because there were relatively few people applying for travel documents. Most travel restrictions have now been lifted. We see that people would like to travel again for business, vacation or family visits that were not possible for two years. Many of these travellers no longer have valid travel documents so they will need to apply for a new one. Unfortunately, applicants are waiting in many countries longer than expected for their travel documents, and it is affecting their travel or ability to identify themselves.
For issuing authorities, it is important to acquire or arrange for a guaranteed minimum level of the supplies needed to produce identity documents. This might include blank documents, the capacity to handle additional inquiries (whether in person, by telephone, written correspondence, or over the internet), and delivery services. Additional public counter and processing space for staff should be among the measures considered too.
New staff need to be recruited and trained. This might mean new hires, internal transfers, or loans from other government departments, but all need to be trained in good time to existing national standards. Partners in the travel document chain may also need to recruit and train employees. It is worth considering whether the issuing authority is able to deploy new staff to process the less risky renewal-type applications, leaving current staff to process higher-risk applications. Perhaps it is possible to adjust opening or working hours if needed to be able to process requests for travel documents. Measures to address future demands can be considered by targeting customers whose travel document has lapsed during the pandemic or simply through general communications. By speaking to suppliers and other partners, such as municipal authorities and applicable contractors, including the travel industry, there can be an agreement on a joint approach for coping with the surge.
The pandemic is not over yet and the world continues to face new problems. These unfortunate situations give the ICBWG the motivation to draw attention to crisis measures and to ensure there are contingency measures in place as international travel recovers.
About the authors
Renee Ong de Jong is the Research and Development Advisor, Travel Documents, Ministry of Interior and Kingdom Relations, The Netherlands.
Stephen Chapman is responsible for International Relations & Stakeholder Engagement for Her Majesty’s Passport Office in the United Kingdom.