India amends quarantine protocols as crew changes accelerate

Indian seafarers on board a vessel. Credit: Cochin port

Indian seafarers desperately looking to return home have received a reprieve from the mandatory 14-day institutional quarantine criteria laid down for crew sign-offs, as the government works around a phased lifting of restrictions imposed earlier to contain the outbreak of COVID-19 infections.

The Directorate General of Shipping (DG Shipping), the country’s maritime administrator, issued a new advisory quashing a previous order of 22 April 2020, which had enforced the mandate while resuming crew changing activity after a prolonged crisis.

The DG Shipping, in its revised standard operating procedure, said seafarers disembarking from an infection-free ship now need to be quarantined at a government- or port-designated centre for only 7 days, instead of 14 days. Notably, the reduced duration also includes the time sailors have spent at sea from the ship’s last foreign port of call.

This is a welcome change for the seafaring community facing unpaid wages and other economic difficulties as they have to bear institutional self-isolation expenses.

“The period of stay on board a ship from [the] last port of call shall be treated as period spent on quarantine, only if the health records of all the seafarers are properly maintained and no crew member of the ship has been tested COVID-19 positive,” the authority said. “On completion of seven days, the seafarer shall undergo a COVID- 19 test to confirm ‘negative’ and be allowed to follow seven days’ isolation at home with self-monitoring of health.”

For the seafarers who have tested positive for COVID-19, standard treatment guidelines issued by the Ministry of Health for all COVID-19 cases continue to apply, the directorate said.

Meanwhile, the latest data released by the DG Shipping suggested that crew changes at Indian ports were accelerating. Between 23 March 2020 and 21 July 2020, a total of 27,266 crew change activities have been performed at various Indian ports, with 18,969 off-signers and 8,297 on-signers.

Mumbai and Cochin ports continue to represent the majority of Indian crew change activity, with the former reporting 13,205 cases and the latter registering 6,248 cases.

In addition, Indian seafarers are increasingly using chartered flights to return home or join their employment. This mode has made up a total of 34,443 cases, with inbound movement at 21,356, and outbound at 13,087. After the Sri Lankan government put a temporary ban on Indian crew changes via Colombo in response to COVID-19 from some of the visiting seafarers in late June, Doha Port in Qatar has seemingly become a focal transit point for Indian seafarers seeking chartered flight options.

Mumbai-based ship agent JM Baxi Group told SAS that it has been at the vanguard of providing crew change agency services across the country. The company claimed to have handled 10,538 off-sign and 2,075 on-sign cases between 23 April 2020 and 27 July 2020.

“It’s been a very long and difficult path to the success we have achieved. Our teams have been tremendously heroic in their efforts and energy poured into this huge repatriation project,” JM Baxi said.

The company also pointed out there have been 157 foreign crew disembarkations, including 156 cases at Alang (shipbreaking yard) and one case at Kandla port.

Sensing the advantages of outer anchorage crew change operations that have helped Cochin port grab a large slice of the market, some of the shipowners have attempted to use Vizhinjam port, a deepwater harbour located about 333 km from Cochin. The docking of the container vessel Ever Globe on 14 July 2020 marked the start of this alternative crew change gateway, which reportedly carried out 14 sign-on and 13 sign-off cases. However, a lack of tugs needed to transport seafarers to and from the mother ship and other infrastructure inadequacies amid ongoing large-scale terminal development activities at the site are causing hurdles to seamless crew movement. Efforts are under way to fix these issues.