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From the News Desk: Action needed to alleviate plight of seafarers

Many crews unable to disembark at designated destination upon completion of contracts due to coronavirus measures

There is growing concern about the welfare and safety of seafarers caught up in the coronavirus lockdown

AS discussed last week in our new coronavirus briefing, the plight of shipping crews unable to disembark from vessels even when their service agreements or contracts have expired is drawing increasing attention in the non-shipping media, summed up in a recent New York Times article.

While governments have talked up the need to ensure that shipping lanes remain open and global trade continues, the people operating these vessels have seemingly been lost in the mix of closed borders, quarantine rules and national lockdowns. A halt has even been put on the restocking and resupplying of ships in some regions.

In an open letter to governments around the world this week, V.Group chief executive Graham Westgarth has urged decision-makers to start treating seafarers as ‘key personnel’ during the coronavirus outbreak or face “catastrophic global consequences”.

“Sadly, the wellbeing of hundreds of thousands of seafarers is currently compromised because they are unable to disembark from vessels at their designated destination upon completion of their contracts,” he writes in a letter sent to Lloyd’s List and other media. “Most have no choice but to continue working for extended periods of weeks or months.”

He warned that unless the situation is resolved soon then the impact on the health and wellbeing of seafarers could be such that it starts to compromise the safety of ships and ultimately the global supply chain of essential goods such as foods, fuel, medicine and equipment.

Westgarth is supportive of the European Commission’s plans for ‘green lanes’ to allow for the free flow of goods and associated personnel across borders and wants to see similar measures applied elsewhere around the globe.

Synergy Group chief executive Rajesh Unni has also drawn attention to what he describes as a ticking “time bomb”, with more than 1.6m seafarers keeping the world’s merchant fleet at sea and around 100,000 seafarers reaching the end of their employment contracts and needing to be repatriated in any given month.

He has proposed a solution that will see a collective effort across the shipping sector involving carefully managed crew changes at designated ports.

Capt Unni says he is now reaching out to like-minded stakeholders to expedite collective crew changes. “We have already spoken to several leading shipowners and they agree this is a positive way forward,” he said, adding that Synergy has also identified many ports where the group thinks this can be actioned.

“We are now approaching leading shipping organisations and have contacted the International Maritime Organization about how we can move this forward with the utmost haste.”

The International Maritime Organization has taken on board the situation and issued a circular to governments, organisations and other UN bodies with a set of recommendations suggested by 16 bodies representing seafarers, shipowners, ports and others- calling for seafarers, port personnel and others to be considered key workers that provide essential services.

Seafarers and maritime professionals should be able to disembark ships in port and transit through a country for the purposes of crew changes and repatriation, according to the IMO.

The situation is changing at a few ports already. In China, crew replacement has been permitted at Shanghai and Nanjing ports on a case-by-case basis and the transport ministry has issued a policy guidance in a bid to expand the scale of the relief.

Beijing is targeting about 10,000 Chinese crew members whose service agreements or contracts will expire by the end of May and are due for shore leave.

Singapore has also this week unveiled special circumstances that will allow the rotation of crews, having previously banned the practice, including if the crew has served their maximum time on board and no further extension of the employment contract is granted by the flag state.

Exemptions will also cover compassionate grounds such as the death of a family member or a scenario in which the crew member is no longer medically fit to work on board the vessel.

Meanwhile, cases of coronavirus infections on board cargo vessels are increasing. Two of the 17 crew members — the chief officer and third officer — on a Pacific Basin dry bulker tested positive at Valparaiso anchorage, Chile on March 27, while the second officer was suffering from a fever, according to an internal company circular seen by Lloyd’s List.

The vessel was said to have been requested by local authorities to “remain at the anchorage for latest 14 days for quarantine or drift off port limits without calling another port”. In an email response, the Hong Kong-listed dry bulker owner confirmed the infections on the 37,528 dwt Isabela Island.

The latest cases follow the news that several members of crew on a Maersk container ship have fallen ill with the virus. A number of seafarers on the 9,000 teu Gjertrud Maersk were diagnosed on March 23, the Danish company said in a statement to Lloyd’s List.

This is thought to be the first time that seafarers working on a containership have tested positive, although there have been many infections on cruiseships.

Maersk said that in line with established protocols, the seafarers on Gjertrud Maersk were isolated when symptoms appeared, and treatment based on advice from medical professionals was provided.

Did you miss our webinar?

Last week, Lloyd’s List and Lloyd’s List Intelligence experts joined a special webinar examining the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the shipping sector and answered questions from a global industry audience.

It looked in-depth at key areas including the macro outlook on the economic shock that the outbreak is likely to deliver as well as what the latest Lloyd’s List Intelligence data is telling us about idle tonnage, floating storage and average miles per day across the fleet.

It also assesses the market scenario for energy shipping, with the oil price war dramatically restructuring the supply and demand fundamentals for the tanker sector.

You can now access the webinar, featuring our data-led analysis of the key maritime markets, via the banner below.


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