Crew change discouraged amid COVID-19 outbreak

Crew may be stuck on board for longer durations due to COVID-19. Credit: CORNELISSEN, DANNY

Maersk Group and Royal Dutch Shell companies have suspended crew changeovers, following calls by Danish crew agency Danica Crewing Services.

The rapid spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) infections worldwide means that crew changeovers should be delayed to keep seafarers safe from the potentially fatal respiratory ailment, Danica managing director Henrik Jensen told SAS.

With much of the world in lockdown and travel bans beginning to bite, crew changes are becoming almost impossible in most cases.

The European Union announced a lockdown on 17 March 2020, and has urged the United Kingdom to do likewise.

Other countries that have closed their borders include Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Taiwan. Luzon, the main island of the Philippines and the world’s largest source of seafarers, has also been locked down.

Jensen advised, “I think at the moment it may be safer for crew changes not to take place. As long as no one on board has the virus, they are effectively in a safe space where they are.”

Jensen added that very sick seafarers are at greater risk on board commercial vessels due to the lack of medical facilities, particularly because there has been news of cruise vessels being denied port access or disembarkation due to virus outbreaks.

“At present, the virus is not significantly spreading among the merchant vessel fleet,” he said. “However, we have seen a number of outbreaks on board cruise ships and, as a result, we are experiencing cases of cruise vessels being banned from entering into ports or put in quarantine while there.

“I am really worried by the possibility of a crew member becoming seriously ill on a commercial vessel,” he said. “It is evident from the incident in Japan that it is a bad idea to keep ill people confined together on a vessel as the virus can spread rapidly between persons on board. Medical facilities on most commercial vessels are not sufficiently well-equipped to treat such a patient, especially on a long voyage.

“In addition, in some parts of the world, adequate medical facilities are not available near to ports or the health care systems in that country may not have the capacity to provide the necessary intensive care treatment for a seriously ill seafarer to be brought ashore,” he continued.

Jensen acknowledged that this approach does of course need to be balanced with the seafarers’ mental and physical health, with their home circumstances taken into account.

He said, “We need to be ready and have resources in place to support seafarers on board who may suffer mental health issues or in case of personal problems, such as a relative back home becoming ill. In such cases, seafarers would normally be relieved on compassionate grounds although, unfortunately, that might well not be possible now.”

Separately, South Korea’s Minister for Oceans and Fisheries, Moon Sung-hyeok, has written to International Labor Organization secretary-general Guy Ryder, requesting the UN body to prepare countermeasures.

The Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries said, “The Maritime Labour Convention requires ship crew to be changed within 12 months but there’s growing concern that crew changes may not be made on time due to disembarkation restrictions or bans on entry.”