The COVID-19 pandemic has seen public services tested as never before. Governments worldwide have had to act fast and decisively, often achieving things previously regarded as impossible. Rising to the occasion, they've led with impact – and they're continuing to do so. Nowhere is this more evident than at the border.

As the crisis hit, border agencies found themselves in the front line. An example? Take the screening of incoming travellers. Pre-pandemic border agencies’ goal was to detect the 1% of people who posed a threat, while facilitating a smooth crossing for the other 99%. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack. Now COVID-19 has turned the whole haystack into a risk, because anybody can be carrying the virus.

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Driving change in multiple dimensions

However, that's just one of the ways the pandemic has changed the game at the border. Its effect has been to reinforce, amplify and accelerate a whole range of trends that were already underway. As a result, it's now fuelling profound and permanent change in three areas.

1. Touchless processes and experiences. While securing the border has always been about safety, security and revenue assurance, it's now also about public health and maintaining trust. Touchless processes are key for enabling safe movement of travellers and a safe working environment for staff at the border. A related effect has been to spur digital transformation more broadly.

Accenture research shows that 84% of border agencies strongly agree that they must now fast-forward their digital transformation with cloud at the core to be agile and resilient. This awareness is triggering rapid advances in digitisation and automation of processes and forms, both in the traveller and trade ecosystems. While this was already happening before COVID-19, progress has now been turbo-charged, with 80% of border agencies telling us they've increased their use of automation since the pandemic began.

This ongoing automation drive at borders includes the growing use of touchless biometric technologies such as AI-enabled facial recognition. In terms of public trust, it's important to recognise that these technologies can raise concerns around personal privacy and potential bias. So border agencies need to explain clearly why they're implementing them, and ensure their use of AI is responsible by testing – and, if necessary, correcting – algorithms for bias.

The other impact of touchless processes is improved process efficiency at borders, including helping to prevent bottlenecks that cause congestion and crowds. With health certification now a vital aspect of border processes, agencies can segment travellers between those with digital evidence and others requiring paper-based checks. By pushing more travellers to use digital channels, and minimising paper based checks, we can improve overall throughput.

2. Hybrid ways of working. While this shift goes far beyond border agencies, it has massive implications for them, driving demands for new skills, processes, policies and technologies. Border agencies are responding: 48% report that they've invested in cloud to support their remote workforce during the pandemic. And 77% say working remotely has made them consider reskilling/upskilling in new technologies, collaboration, and remote team management.

However, while remote working has increased – often supported by digital collaboration tools – border agencies' enforcement role means they'll always need on-site personnel. So agencies are focusing on using tech to augment those workers. Examples include using augmented reality (AR) to provide a "second pair of eyes" virtually for the person doing an inspection, or using cameras, heat sensors and AI for remote surveillance of customs supervised areas. 

We're also seeing technologies like AR and VR used increasingly for training border staff. New recruits need to learn many things on the ground that aren’t covered in textbooks. And AR/VR – especially when combined with digital twins – can simulate the real-world border experience even for people working remotely.

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3. Impact of orthodoxies of trade. In combination with other megatrends, COVID-19 has severely disrupted cross-border supply chains. And with people spending less money on experiences, and more on goods bought online, the outcomes have included bottlenecks at ports and container shortages. Hardly surprising then that 79% of border agencies say they've faced moderate to complete supply chain disruption as a result of the pandemic.

In combination with other megatrends, COVID-19 has severely disrupted cross-border supply chains. The turmoil in the Ukraine and sanctions being placed on trade with Russia are sure to disrupt even further.

The result? Businesses involved in international trade have shifted their mindset from lean processes to process resilience, impacting border agencies in several ways.

  • New players coming into supply chains as businesses diversify their suppliers, meaning agencies have to revisit and review their trusted trader and trusted supply chain certifications for these unknown entrants
  • A surge in 3D printing of components, such as for medical equipment, requiring agencies to assess those products for intellectual property and product safety standards.
  • Businesses seeking to build greater visibility into their supply chains, resulting in a growing interest to share data with other participants, including customs agencies. Customs information is a key link in supply chains, and a vital resource for traders not only to keep track of goods but also to assess potential risks. And for customs agencies, the ability to access companies' supply chain data offers similar benefits – which is why we're seeing both agencies and traders looking to integrate into data-sharing platforms.

What's on the horizon?

While the COVID-19 pandemic will hopefully eventually pass into history, we believe its effects in reshaping the cross-border travel and trade landscape are here to stay – and will continue to play out for many years to come.

In this blog, we looked at the impacts of COVID-19 at the border, but what’s next. In our next blog, we‘ll build on these insights and look at how digital twins empower automated borders, and how challenges around climate change and wider sustainability are catalysing the need to do more with borders. Stay tuned.

So, are you ready for the challenges these changes will create? Please don't hesitate to get in touch to discuss this question or anything else in this blog post. 

Prasanna Ellanti

Global Border Services Lead

Alexander de Voet

Senior Manager – Consulting, Border Services Lead

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