Singapore to tighten COVID-19 prevention procedures for crew change

An aerial view of Singapore port. Credit: MPA

The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) announced on 24 July that all shore personnel in contact with ship crew are advised to don face shields or goggles in addition to face masks and gloves when working on the ships.

In a statement, the MPA disclosed that in the past week, three crew members scheduled to sign-on to oceangoing cargo ships tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival in Singapore.

“This has prevented the shipping companies concerned from conducting successful crew changes. Resources were also put in to isolate and minimise the probability of any spread of the virus to others, including fellow crew members,” said the MPA.

There have been incidents of COVID-19 clusters emerging on oceangoing ships globally; a seafarer tested positive on board a bulk carrier at the port of Brisbane, Australia. Additionally, three Russian ships that called in South Korea’s Busan port were quarantined, as they had several positive cases of COVID-19 on board. Singapore had three imported COVID-19 cases in seafarers, including two Filipinos.

This week, Malaysia revealed that two foreign seafarers tested positive for COVID-19. On 22 July, Malaysia’s health director-general Noor Hisham Abdullah said a Russian seafarer is the index case of what has been labelled the “Hyde Park cluster”, which emerged on a ship that called at Port Klang.

Noor Hisham said at a press briefing that the cluster was detected through a screening of the ship’s crew before they returned to their country. Twenty-four people were screened and four tested positive.

“All positive cases in this cluster involve non-Malaysian citizens. They are being treated at Sungai Buloh Hospital, while all close contacts who tested negative are being quarantined on the ship,” said Noor Hisham. “Therefore, this cluster doesn’t carry any risk of infection transmission to the community because it is an isolated imported cluster on a ship.”

He added that the ship is being disinfected and decontaminated.

On 23 July, a Filipino seafarer, aged 26, tested positive for COVID-19 in Pahang, Malaysia. The seafarer had flown into Kuala Lumpur on 16 July to sign-in to a vessel in Kuantan Port.

There is concern that such incidents will further jeopardise calls to resume international crew change. The International Transport Workers’ Federation estimates that as many as 600,000 seafarers have been unable to return to their home countries due to the global travel restrictions.

InterManager secretary-general Kuba Szymanski told SAS that the number of COVID-19-infected seafarers is not significant when compared with the global number of seafarers.

“Our statistics show that there were less than 100 cases for [a] population of 1.5 million seafarers, which rank us on par with Singapore who had 310 for 5.6 million people. Please also remember that we travel around the world and have to observe far more stringent procedures that are imposed by just one country,” said Szymanski.

Szymanski added that InterManager will continue to strive to get governments to resume crew change,  for the sake of seafarers’ welfare.

“We’ve been working with many industry stakeholders right from the beginning, making sure that we can stay proactive, but also be of help and assistance to those who require that. It’s extremely important to us to ensure that fellow human beings – seafarers – are fully motivated and willing to work around the world, even when they face pretty hostile reception and ‘invented facts’,” he said.

The MPA is working with the industry to come up with more detailed guidelines on the ‘safe-corridor’ procedures to safeguard the crew change process, including the need to self-isolate while serving the stay-home notices, to ensure accurate COVID-19 tests, and direct transfers from airport to ship for the crew while in Singapore to minimise contact.

Seafarers signing-off ships should not remain at a holding facility for more than 48 hours while waiting to transfer to their flight. On 2 July, two designated holding facilities were opened to accommodate seafarers if the timing of their flights and vessels is incompatible.

On average, the MPA processed 300 crew change applications in July. Given the increasing number of crew change applications, the MPA will also need to prioritise new crew change applications. These will include crew with expired contracts, which flag states are not extending further; Singapore-registered ships; and crew sign-offs.