Seafarers ‘on the frontline’ of COVID-19 safety crisis

A seafarer on deck of an offshore vessel. Credit: Getty Images

The outbreak of COVID-19 is having a major impact on crew changes, with seafarers suffering from transfer suspensions and a lack of attention on other medical conditions, according to a leading maritime insurer. Vessel safety could also be put at risk if surveys cannot be conducted in person.

“Crews are getting stuck in transit,” confirmed Ella Hagell divisional director Britannia P&I during a Maritime London webinar on 23 March. “COVID-19 is affecting onsigners and offsigners the most – some companies have suspended crew changes for this reason, to stop them getting stuck where they are and delayed in transit indefinitely due to travel restrictions,” explained Hagel, addressing recent criticism of companies that have suspended crew changes.

Further, the ability to get deceased seafarers offboard has become especially difficult, given the wariness surrounding COVID-19 – a development that is causing extra distress to already suffering families. Cases have been reported, of seafarers who have died in accidents, were unable to be repatriated due to flight bans, then once the ban was lifted the receiving country went gone into lockdown, causing further delays.

The club also highlighted that it was increasingly difficult to access hospital updates regarding crew who were recovering from accidents or illnesses that were not COVID-19-related. Crew that have recovered from health issues and are fit to travel cannot get back onboard their vessels due to these restrictions.

Hagell added that the club had heard reports of cargo surveyors encountering difficulties in trying to get onboard to carry out surveys. Some companies are employing the use of remotely operated surveys to be conducted instead but the efficacity of this approach is still under question, which would leave serious implications around vessel compliance.

The secondary impact of COVID-19 on safety culture is palpable, a recent case was mentioned of a vessel rescuing a fishing boat in trouble off the coast of South America. One of the fishermen was ill with suspected malaria, but given the global focus on COVID-19 the fisherman could not leave the vessel because of his symptoms and was put into quarantine onboard. The knock-on effect of such cases could be that vessels are increasingly may be less inclined to offer assistance to others in trouble.

Hagell said that major maritime organisations and governing bodies are involved in resolving this issue, and that the International Maritime Organization is encouraging a pragmatic approach to crew changes, and unhindered seafarer movement should begin again.

“Crews are on the frontline of this global calamity,” she concluded, “P&I clubs can help by using our local correspondents as a source of up-to-date information, and filter and disseminate this information as it changes daily.”