The need for ships to change crews and for the world’s 1.2 million seafarers to be able to fly home at the end of their periods of service have emerged as two of the biggest challenges facing the shipping industry as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
To help governments put in place coordinated procedures to facilitate the safe movement of seafarers, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) issued a 12-step plan to 174 member states, providing them with a roadmap to free seafarers from their COVID-19 lockdown and allow appropriate exemptions for them to join or leave ships.
The 55-page roadmap has been advanced by a broad coalition of seafarer unions and international shipping industry associations, with input from airline industry representatives, international organizations and the insurance sector, to provide a comprehensive blueprint of how governments can facilitate crew changeovers and resolve safety concerns throughout the entire process.
In two weeks’ time approximately 150,000 merchant seafarers will need to be changed over to ensure compliance with international maritime regulations, with tens of thousands currently trapped onboard ships across the globe after having to extend their service following many months at sea, unable to be replaced or repatriated after long tours of duty due to the continuing imposition of travel restrictions.
The wide-ranging protocols provide a framework to develop procedures that can be adopted worldwide to ensure that trade can keep flowing and seafarers can be relieved, with recommendations to maritime administrations and other relevant national authorities such as health, customs, immigration, border control, seaport and civil aviation authorities. They address the roles of shipping companies, agents and representatives, including crew agencies and seafarers, and extend to seaports, airports and airlines involved in travel operations for ship crew changes.
The 12-step plan entitled “Recommended Framework of Protocols for Ensuring Safe Ship Crew Changes and Travel during the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic” was issued in an IMO circular inviting the Organization’s Member States and international organizations to use the protocols and to disseminate them among relevant national authorities.
IMO Secretary-General Lim said he supports these protocols and urges their implementation.
Stephen Cotton, General Secretary, International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) said, “Today seafarers’ unions, industry and the ILO and IMO are jointly calling on governments worldwide to put an end to hardships faced by the 150,000 seafarers currently stranded and pave a way for them to return home.
“This is about governments recognizing the critical role that seafarers play in global supply chains, recognizing them as key workers, and providing immediate and consistent exceptions from COVID-19 restrictions to allow crew changeovers.
“International seafarers are bearing the burden first-hand as governments turn a blind eye to the ‘forgotten sector’. The ITF, ICS and IMO have a clear message, governments cannot continue with a mentality of out of sight, out of mind, and we strongly urge governments to use this roadmap to act now before we suffer more serious consequences.”
“It is an important step that we provide these protocols, to demonstrate that transferring crews can be done safely. It is however down to all the nation states to implement the required measures during a crisis that is still escalating in many locations. It will therefore require continued consultation with governments, to avoid a potential breakdown in supply-chains which will harm everyone,” said Lars Robert Pedersen, BIMCO Deputy Secretary General.
Guy Platten, Secretary General of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) said, “We are working with political leaders so that they can steer a steady course and allow safe crew changes to take place.
“The problem is simplistic, but the solution is complex. So, we have stepped up and done the homework and developed the protocols. We are now working with governments to implement this roadmap.
“Seafarers continue to work really hard, day-in, day-out and far away from loved ones, but if we are not able to free our seafarers from their COVID-19 lockdown we could start to see disruption to trade and more importantly we increase the risk of accident and occurrences of mental health issues. Putting this off is no longer an option.”
The protocols for crew change and repatriation were drawn up by ICS, IAPH, BIMCO, IFSMA, INTERTANKO, P&I Clubs, CLIA, INTERCARGO, InterManager, IPTA, IMCA, INTERFERRY, FONASBA, ITF, and WSC. They also take account of input from the International Air Transport Association (IATA). ILO and WHO also provided vital input into the document, along with ICS national shipowners’ associations and ITF affiliated seafarers’ unions.