26 Mar 2021

COVID-19: advice for Humanitarian Aid workers

Advice for UK humanitarian aid workers deployed overseas during COVID-19 pandemic COVID-19: advice for Humanitarian Aid workers
  • This updates the news item of 30 December 2020

In March 2020, the World Health Organization and United Nations launched the COVID-19 Humanitarian Relief Plan [1]. Leading international humanitarian aid agencies will play an important role in this response and aid workers from the United Kingdom are being deployed overseas to help during the crisis [1].

The Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO) currently advise British nationals against all but essential travel to many countries and territories, on the basis of COVID-19 risk. Information is available on the FCDO website and our Country Information pages [2].

International travel may also be restricted because of domestic regulations to control the spread of COVID-19. Travellers should check the up to date rules on the GOV.UK website.

For humanitarian aid workers, deployment overseas may be considered essential. Government regulations state that it is reasonable to leave the UK to provide voluntary or charitable services, where it is not possible to do that from the UK. People who are employed by an international organisation as an expert or on a mission are exempt from restrictions on leaving the UK. In this case, travellers should follow the FCDO travel advice and the guidance below.

Before you go

If appropriate, you should contact your occupational health team, health and safety officer/department, and your own healthcare provider/s, for advice specific to you and your role. Ensure you are fit for your deployment, discuss any health concerns with your occupational health department and establish what medical support is available to you at your destination.


Make sure you are familiar with your deploying organisation’s assessment and guidance regarding your risk of COVID-19. This should include their COVID-19 mitigation strategy for workers, any appropriate training, and the protective measures they have in place, including personal protective equipment (PPE) provision, at your destination.

Public Health England (PHE) has specific guidance on COVID-19: infection prevention and control and COVID-19: guidance for health professionals which includes recommendation on appropriate PPE use.

Recent research found only a small number of COVID-19 cases (44/1.2 billion passengers) were associated with a flight journey [3]. However, there is definitive evidence of inflight transmission [4]. Wearing a mask during a flight appears to add an extra layer of protection [5]. However, as COVID-19 virus is found in respiratory droplets, transmission can occur by direct person to person contact or indirect contact with contaminated items or surfaces. It is essential that you take good hygiene measures during and beyond your journey to minimise infection risk.

Be aware of the surfaces you touch. Wash hands regularly with soap and running water for at least 20 seconds. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser that contains at least 60% alcohol if soap and water are not available.

  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in a bin and wash hands with soap and water.
  • Ask your airline about physical distancing measures or other measures in place to reduce or limit physical contact with potentially infected passengers aboard the aircraft.
  • Avoid moving from your seat unnecessarily but exercise your legs (flex and extend the ankles) as much as possible to encourage blood flow from the lower leg.
  • Use the designated toilet for your area only and wash your hands before leaving the toilet.
  • If you are unwell on the flight please stay in your seat and follow any instructions provided during the flight, and contact the air crew as soon as possible [6].

Whilst you are there

Be aware of your personal safety and always follow your deploying organisation’s destination specific security recommendations. You should contact your healthcare provider urgently for medical attention if you become unwell.

To reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection, you should take prevention measures which include:

  • Maintaining good hand and personal hygiene. Wash hands regularly with soap and water or alcohol based disinfectant gel before handling or consuming food.
  • Avoid close contact with anyone with cold or flu-like symptoms, or who appears unwell.
  • Avoid sharing personal items.
  • Follow guidelines on social distancing measures which may be in place.

To reduce the risk of passing coronavirus to others, anyone with respiratory symptoms should:

  • Cover your nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing with a tissue or flexed elbow.
  • Use paper tissues only once and dispose of them carefully, then clean hands with soap and water or alcohol based disinfectant gel.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces in the home and work environment.
  • Should a mask be worn, all the recommended precautions in order to minimise the risk of transmission should still be used.

Follow good food and water hygiene.

If appropriate to the country you are working in, follow insect bite avoidance measures.

If you are deployed to a malaria risk country, be aware of the symptoms of malaria and the need for prompt treatment.

Follow the ABCD of malaria prevention:

  • Awareness of malaria risk
  • Bite prevention
  • Chemoprophylaxis - appropriate antimalarials and compliance with regime
  • Diagnosis - prompt diagnosis and treatment without delay

When you return to the UK

All travellers should check UK border measures for those entering or returning to the UK.

National travel restrictions may apply for UK residents and may be different in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, check up to date guidance from GOV.UK.

If you become unwell with a high temperature, new continuous cough or a loss of, or change in, your normal sense of taste or smell (anosmia), you should self-isolate and arrange to have a test.

Humanitarian aid workers who travel to the UK from areas affected by Ebola should be risk assessed by PHE as part of the Ebola: returning workers scheme.

Returning from a malaria risk region

If you return from malaria risk areas and are ill, you must seek urgent medical advice. Inform the health professional you have travelled to a malaria risk area in the last six months. In the current emergency, please be aware that if you have returned from a malarious area in the last six months and have a fever, you need an urgent malaria test (malaria film) on the same day you develop a fever.

If you have a fever, you can phone NHS 111 for advice, stating you have returned from a malaria area and need a malaria film. They will advise how you can travel safely to your local A&E department for this test to be carried out urgently [7].

Advice for health professionals

Guidance on the management of cases and close contacts can be found in Public Health England’s COVID-19: investigation and initial clinical management of possible cases guidance. All those being assessed for possible COVID-19 must be asked if they have travelled abroad in the last six months. If their itinerary included a malaria risk country, they must have a blood test result for malaria on the same day [3].


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