Global ocean-going shipping companies have repeatedly demonstrated to the authorities in general that the shipping industry is taking a great number of measures to keep its crews and shore side communities safe from COVID.
Back in July 2020, using our connections with international shipping associations, world shipping bodies and global shipping companies, Shipping Australia canvassed the ocean-going shipping industry to discover how the world shipping sector was defending against the COVID virus.
COVID-control measures taken by the shipping industry include (but are not limited to):
- Protocols, circulars and guidelines issued by the International Maritime Organization
- Guidance issued by the International Chamber of Shipping
- Requiring on-signing seafarers to complete COVID-specific screenings and declarations
- Requiring on-signing seafarers to have their temperature taken and recorded prior to boarding
- Requiring on-signing seafarers to be tested for COVID prior to boarding
- Requiring seafarers to be tested in their countries of residence pre-deployment
- Having contingency plans in place in the event any given seafarer did not pass screening protocols
- Briefing seafarers about COVID, the IMO protocols and their employer’s protocols
- Home quarantining of seafarers for 14 days prior to boarding
- Hotel quarantining where appropriate
- Flights being arranged within 48 hours of the COVID test
- Crew required to wear gloves, face masks, face shields, etc when in transit; use of hand sanitizer
- Seafarers physically distancing as much as possible while in transit and on ship
- Cancellation of shore leave
- No or limited interaction with shoreside personnel, for instance:
- exchange of mandatory documents is being done by shoreside staff placing documents in a container which ship crew then hoist up over the side of the ship; documents from the ship are returned in the same way
- crew are directed to stay far away from safety-related shoreside personnel, such as marine pilots, who are required to board ships
- Controls and restrictions on access to, and movement around, ships by shoreside personnel
- Crew transiting, where possible, in segregated vehicles if possible
- En-route transiting crew provided with food to avoid need to visit diners, food stalls etc
- Conducting of temperature checks on crew members during voyage
- Disinfection of onboard work surfaces, especially high-touch work surfaces (rails, buttons, doorways, gangways)
- Development of shipboard plans and procedures for all of the above
Shipping Australia provided a 14-page comprehensive brief to the Federal authorities explaining all of these matters and we included five case studies (involving numerous pages) together with photographic evidence. We provided a case study involving an operator of about 670 ships which also directs over 31,000 seafaring employees.
Since then, thankfully, scientists and technologists around the world have produced highly effective vaccines. So there is now a further measure that shipping companies have been undertaking: they have been getting their seafarers vaccinated where it is possible to do so.
During the course of the pandemic, we have repeatedly written to Federal, State and Territory authorities and politicians urging that shipping be allowed to continue unhindered and that crew changes be allowed. Members of the Shipping Australia secretariat have repeatedly discussed the situation in the media and we have discussed this subject in our weekly newsletters, which is published to a broad audience, including officials and the offices of politicians.
In relation to the WA Government specifically, we have written letters and briefed officials and have taken part in workshops. In July this year, we wrote an eight-page submission with over 50 points on the importance of ocean trade, risk management, the importance of not turning away ships, objections to what was then a proposed Maritime Risk Management Statement (now since adopted as a policy) and shipping industry measures to reduce risk.
Areas of concern
Shipping is worried that ships will be turned away from Western Australia because crew onboard may have COVID. Such actions would expose seafarers to the risk of personal injury and death when they could have otherwise been treated and restored to health. When a government, such as the Western Australian government, has the skills, ability and institutions to provide medical help then we would argue that such a policy is immoral, unethical and lacking in compassion.
While the policy aim of protecting public health is, of course, extremely important, given the proven competence of the maritime and medical authorities in Western Australia in tackling ships with COVID onboard, a policy to turn ships away is unnecessary – and therefore unreasonable – for the purpose of protecting public health.
It’s also illegal as Australia has obligations to provide healthcare to sick seafarers.
Shipping is also worried that a policy of turning away ships and thereby potentially causing whole ship crews to become infected could cause whole crews to become infected. If that were to happen then we can only imagine how the abilities of a sick – and possibly dying – crew to safely navigate a ship would be compromised. This policy could lead to a shipwreck with pollution, in the form of lost containers and spilled fuel oil, in the pristine areas of Western Australia.
Daily Rapid Antigen Testing – this requirement is extremely stringent, as many ships may not have these test kits. We understand these kits are not readily available in some overseas countries. What is the expectation regarding the onboard carriage of these kits?
PCR COVID-19 testing of any maritime workers boarding the vessel at the higher risk location will need to return a negative result. Is it a requirement for stevedores to have a negative test and what happens if this cannot be obtained? Would this be required for vessels that have called at high risk locations within Australia such as Sydney?
Vaccination status of crew – do all crew have to be vaccinated prior entry into Western Australian waters? This will be challenging and could have an enormous impact.
Will shipping companies keep calling in Western Australia?
Ocean shipping lines are now dealing with uncertainty in relation to Western Australia. They are uncertain as to whether or not to continue to load cargoes for discharge in Western Australia.
If the current policy stance of the McGowan administration is to lead to the outcome that shipping companies cannot risk loading cargo for discharge in Western Australia, then we could not imagine that the consequences would be beneficial for the Western Australian population of not being able to access foodstuffs, household goods, consumer goods or business goods.
“Shipping Australia calls upon the WA government to recognise the vital importance of shipping and to adopt a pragmatic risk management and practical response approach with the aim of facilitating trade. We also call upon the administration to ensure that sick seafarers have access to appropriate medical care,” said Shipping Australia CEO Melwyn Noronha.
Top ten points for COVID control in relation to ocean-going shipping
- Australian families and businesses depend on ocean shipping for the delivery of foodstuffs, stock for sale, spare parts, general supplies and everyday goods
- Ships need to remain fully operational and able to access our ports to maintain the continuity of the supply chain
- There are direct and indirect costs to Australia of hindering shipping; ultimately ordinary Australians bear the burden of these costs
- Governments should have an awareness of the consequences of not attending to the welfare needs of seafarers
- Fatigue and resulting error in judgment by seafarers could be a causal factor in a maritime environmental disaster
- Ships and crews need to be identified and acknowledged as a vital component of Australia’s supply chain
- A single nationally-agreed and nationally-applied crew change, shipping and freight policy that allows ships to call in Australia and which allows crew changes is necessary
- Governments must not turn ships away because their crews are sick; seafarers have legal rights to access to medical attention and governments must help sick people see a doctor
- Governments should impose the least-possible restrictive measures commensurate with a reasonable risk management process for the objectively reasonable maintenance of public health
- Governments should base maritime-related COVID rules on evidence, science and industry input so as to achieve point (9) above