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Shipping’s crew change crisis: global problem, local actions

Shipping’s crew change crisis: global problem, local actions
August 28, 2020

GAC’s Neil Godfrey charts the crew change crunch across the world.

At ports around the world, Covid-19 has prompted the most instantaneous and staggering reordering of crew change best practice in the modern globalised era. With daily changes in government instructions and medical advice becoming the norm, the shipping industry faces a genuine challenge in delivering clear information and advice that ensures the safe transition of crews, while also maintaining the businesses of shi owners and operators as far as is practically possible. Indeed, it is perhaps inaccurate to describe the circumstances we find ourselves in as a single “crewing crisis”, when countless multi-dimensional crises are being played out every day.

The exceptional, everyday

During these times, where every crew change could arguably be described as exceptional, the men and women responsible for the safe transit of 95% of the world’s goods have endured delays of days, weeks or even months before they can sign on/off a vessel and be repatriated to family and friends. For all, a lack of commercial international flights has been the key limiting factor. However, Filipino seafarers have been particularly badly impacted, while those transitioning through Finland – the first country to give seafarers key worker status – are likely to have experienced the best outcomes. On top of the mental health issues reported by seafarers, individuals in areas including the Middle East risk life-changing consequences or even death if they become critically ill, with access to medical care delayed while extensive legal and regulatory matters are resolved.

Changing restrictions

Precautionary measures to reduce transmission of Covid-19 are as evolving as they are localised. Covid-19 tests and quarantine measures are almost universal, but some areas require multiple negative results before onward travel is permitted. There have also been instances where seafarers have tested negative for Covid-19 before an outbound flight to join their vessels, only to test positive upon arrival at the ship. At the time of writing, some parts of the Far East are on high alert, due to the possibility of a second or even third wave of the virus. In late July, the Maritime Port Authority (MPA) of Singapore also tightened crew change regulations and criteria yet again, after several non-compliant cases came to light. In Hong Kong, testing and quarantine arrangements for crew were tightened up, with crew changes for all passenger vessels and those without cargo operations suspended outright.

On the other hand, North American crew changes have been conducted mostly smoothly due to more lenient regulations. However, the overall issue of repatriation and flight availability will be a medium-term issue – one which is outside of the shipping industry’s control to resolve.

Ship agents have also been beset by varying and sometimes ambiguous interpretations of national and local guidelines. This has been a particular issue in Brazil, where federal guidelines are being interpreted differently from one port to another – some of whom do not feel able to properly implement the suggested procedures.

Financial costs and backlog

The pressure is also on for operators, who are suffering with idle ships. Covid-19 tests are expensive, and salaries continue to be paid to many seafarers stranded onboard beyond the end of their contracts. Moreover, in some countries, such as the USA, costs to police and guard crew with expired visas, add to the mountain of extra expenses that operators face.

With uncertainty over further peaks of Covid-19 cases in some parts of the world, this pandemic is not going to go away any time soon. Around the globe, the backlog of crew operations is building. With all key stakeholders keeping their fingers on the pulse, the agency sector must be ready to react quickly to changes on the ground in their local regions.