At a time when the number of COVID cases increases and many ports and countries operate with differing COVID-19 regulations, we encourage ship operators to review their crew change management plans, implement all relevant recommendations set out in the revised IMO supported protocols for crew changes and travel, and continue to promote compliance with proven health measures such as physical distancing, hand hygiene, cough etiquette and use of masks.
Upward trend in number of COVID-19 cases
The rapid spread of coronavirus variants has put the world on high alert, triggered new rounds of lockdowns in many countries, and for ship operators, further complicated an already difficult crew-change situation.
According to the WHO’s COVID-19 weekly epidemiological update of 11 May 2021, more than 5.5 million new cases and 90 000 deaths were recorded globally last week. Case and death incidence remains at the highest level since the beginning of the pandemic, and while the new weekly cases in the regions of Europe and Eastern Mediterranean decreased last week, the South-East Asia Region continued an upward trajectory for the 9th week and reported a further 6% increase in new cases last week.
Unfortunately, the WHO’s sad statistic is also reflected in the number of COVID-19 outbreaks reported to Gard. Despite ship operators’ and seafarers’ best efforts to ensure safe crew changes and implementation of onboard protective measures, we are seeing an increase in the number of cases where crewmembers are infected with COVID-19.
In the 2020 policy year illness claims have risen by one-third, with COVID-19 accounting for almost half of them. During the last month, we and other P&I clubs have seen record numbers of COVID-19 outbreaks and infections onboard ships. For the first time, we see outbreaks onboard infecting most of the crew, with the majority suffering symptoms, which can result in serious operational issues. Earlier on in the pandemic, ships typically had one seafarer testing positive for COVID-19, who was isolated on board, unless they needed medical treatment. Now we see entire ships being isolated because most of the crew are infected. While this worrying trend is most likely related to an increase in the proportion of cases from coronavirus variants with potentially increased transmissibility, we stress that human behavior is also important. Limiting the spread of the virus through compliance with proven health measures gives the virus fewer chances to change, and reduces the spread of more dangerous variants, if they do occur.
What we know about the coronavirus variants
Viruses constantly change through mutation, and new variants of a virus are expected to occur over time. Sometimes new variants emerge and disappear. Other times, new variants emerge and persist. The WHO, in collaboration with national authorities, institutions and researchers, routinely assesses new variants of the coronavirus, and systems have been established to detect “signals” of potential variants of concern (VOCs) or variants of interest (VOIs) and assess these based on the risk posed to global public health.
At the time of writing, the mutations first identified in the UK, South Africa, Brazil, and India have been designated as VOCs at international level. While much more information about the Indian variant is still needed in order to decide how dangerous it is, numerous international studies of the three other VOCs seem to agree that they spread more easily and quickly than the original coronavirus, which in turn is likely to lead to an increased number of infections, and also pose a higher risk of developing severe disease. In terms of their impact on the effectiveness of vaccines, the WHO states that the vaccines that are currently in development or have been approved are expected to provide at least some protection against these new virus variants. However, the WHO also underlines that this is an area where much of the evidence remains preliminary and is developing quickly and refers to its COVID-19 weekly epidemiological updates for up-to-date information on the impact of virus variants and the effectiveness of the different vaccines.
IMO guidance on crew changes
The IMO, together with a number of industry organisations, have put together a recommended framework of protocols for ensuring safe ship crew changes and travel during the COVID-19 pandemic. These protocols provide recommendations to ship operators and seafarers, governments, maritime administrations, port authorities and other stakeholders involved in crew changes on how to manage and control the risk of seafarers becoming infected prior to leaving home, while travelling to join a ship and during repatriation.
The most recent version of the protocols, MSC.1/Circ.1636/Rev.1, was issued in April 2021 and incorporates the latest best practices as well as updates on issues related to the global rollout of vaccines and the critical part vaccines will play in facilitating ships’ crew changes and the efficient movement of world trade. While much of the protocols’ advice is aimed at governments and national authorities, there are also numerous sections aimed at ship operators, many referring to their obligations under the ISM Code and the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) such as:
• providing seafarers with general information on the coronavirus and standard infection protection and control precautions based on WHO guidance, plus up-to-date and relevant information regarding the availability and efficacy of vaccines, including the ICS publication “Coronavirus (COVID-19) Vaccination for Seafarers and Shipping Companies: A Practical Guide”,
• providing seafarers with information on the company’s COVID-19 plans and procedures, as well as its policy regarding the need for strict compliance with any requirements related to isolation, quarantine, testing and vaccinations,
• arranging for seafarers to be provided with necessary personal protective equipment, sufficient to cover the period of travel to the ship,
• arranging flights and other supporting travel, e.g. transfers, for seafarers, and develop any necessary contingency plans, and
• last but not least, ensuring that seafarers are familiar with their ship’s plans and procedures related to health protection and the actions to take if any persons on board display symptoms of COVID-19 infection in order to manage a potential outbreak.
The IMO encourage all stakeholders concerned to consider applying the protocols to the maximum possible extent. The protocols will be kept under review as the pandemic develops and the most recent version will always be available to download from the IMO COVID-19 website.
The IMO has also established a Frequently Asked Questions about crew changes and repatriation of seafarers as well as a Seafarer Crisis Action Team (SCAT) to help resolve individual cases. Furthermore, and in order to assist the hundreds of thousands of seafarers that are still stranded on ships due to COVID-19 imposed travel restrictions, the IMO recently published the Human rights due diligence tool, a new guidance that aims to ensure seafarers have their rights safeguarded in areas such as physical and mental health, access to family life and freedom of movement.
The bottom line
COVID-19 cases globally are at record high and new variants of the coronavirus continue to emerge, many of which are thought to be more transmissible and associated with higher severity of infection. As many ports and countries operate with differing COVID-19 regulations, and seafarers’ access to vaccines remains limited, ship operators are encouraged to:
• carefully review their crew management plans,
• develop plans and procedures, under the ISM Code and the MLC, to address the risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic to the health of seafarers and the safety of their ship operations,
• implement all relevant recommendations set out in the revised IMO supported protocols for crew changes and travel,
• continue to promote compliance with proven health measures such as physical distancing, hand hygiene, cough etiquette and use of masks, and
• otherwise take guidance from available industry best practice documents.