Crew change sparks virus outbreak in Australian ports

A health official checks the body temperature of a passenger for COVID-19. Credit: MAURICIO VALENZUELA/AFP via Getty Images

Six new virus outbreaks have been uncovered in Australian ports in recent weeks as concerns grow that labour-supply countries are failing to ensure crew are properly screened. According to estimates by the International Maritime Organization, 400,000 seafarers and port workers are currently stranded at sea.

On the eastern seaboard, the cargo ship Sofrana Surville has been forced to anchor off the southern Queensland coast after a previously undetected strain of COVID-19 was discovered at its last port of call in New Zealand. Two crew have tested positive.

The ship sailed to Australia via Noumea on 19 October after a port employee who worked on the vessel tested positive.

New Zealand authorities reported that the port employee has infected two other people despite spending “a few minutes in the same room” with them.

Queensland Health also reported two seafarers on the container ship Seamax Stratford tested positive in early October. The crew were part of a charter flight of 21 seafarers from Mumbai, India, who joined the vessel in the port of Brisbane on 1 October.

In Fremantle, two Australian crew – a veterinarian and a stockman – were allowed to disembark livestock carrier Al Messilah before a COVID-19 outbreak was detected on board. Although both crew tested negative, it has raised alarms. Subsequently, 36 seafarers on board the vessel have been taken into a quarantine hotel. Later it was found that 24 of them tested positive to the virus. A skeleton crew remained on board while the ship underwent a deep clean, WA Health reported on 22 October.

Al Messilah is the second livestock vessel in the port to suffer a virus outbreak and one of four cases on ships in Western Australian waters in three weeks. Twenty of 48 crew on board the Al Kuwait livestock carrier tested positive in Fremantle in May 2020.

Port Hedland also recorded two cases of COVID-19 on board bulk carriers in the past month – Vega Dream and Patrica Oldendorff.

The BHP-chartered iron ore carrier Vega Dream declined medical assistance and anchored outside Australian waters, returning to the Philippines with seven crew having the virus on board. One was taken ashore when the ship was loading.

Two Filipino seafarers on the bulk carrier Key Integrity in the port of Fremantle also tested positive last week. WA Health report the vessel left Manila on 6 October where a crew exchange took place.

Crew change in the state is now even tougher, Shipping Australia said.

“Western Australia’s almost complete re-write of its crew change rules earlier this week means it’s now almost impossible to carry out a crew change anywhere in WA, except in Perth,” Shipping Australia reported.

Unions are calling for ships to complete a 14-day quarantine at sea before arriving in port while the state government has demanded Canberra take a co-ordinated, international approach to the crew crisis.

Meanwhile, mining company Fortescue Metals has denied media reports it would no longer use Manila-based crew when contacted by SAS. The BHP has yet to respond.