The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) is warning that lack of access to COVID-19 vaccinations for seafarers is placing shipping in a legal minefield and leaving global supply chains vulnerable.
Reports that some states are insisting all crew be vaccinated as a pre-condition of entering their ports are raising concerns that vaccinations could soon become a compulsory requirement for work at sea.
However, according to ICS, 900,000 of the world’s seafarers (over half the global work force) are from developing nations and current estimates are that those nations will not achieve mass immunization until 2024, with some 90% of people in 67 low-income countries standing little chance of vaccination in 2021.
ICS says that this is creating a “perfect storm” for shipowners, who may be forced to cancel voyages if crew members are not vaccinated.
“They would risk legal, financial and reputational damage by sailing with unvaccinated crews, who could be denied entry to ports,” says ICS, adding that such delays would open up legal liabilities and costs for owners, which would not be recoverable from charterers.”
While owners would be able to address the need for seafarer vaccines in new contracts, says ICS, those attempting to change existing contracts or asking crew to receive a specific vaccine requested by a port could open themselves up to legal liabilities.
SHIPPING VITAL TO GLOBAL VACCINE DISTRIBUTION
This uncertainty comes as shipping is set to play a key role in the battle against the pandemic.
Shipping is expected to overtake aviation in the race to deliver vaccines around the world in the second half of 2021, in a distribution drive that is estimated to take four years.
Shipping is also a vital method of transportation for accompanying personal protective equipment (PPE), whose estimated total volume will be 6-7 times that of the vaccine and refrigeration systems.
Seafarers are among the most internationalized workers in the world, crossing international borders multiple times during a contracted period, with up to 30 nationalities on board at any one time.
“Shipping companies are in an impossible position. They are stuck between a rock and a hard place, with little or no access to vaccines for their workforce, particularly from developing countries,” says ICS secretary-general Guy Platten. “We’re already seeing reports of states requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination for seafarers. If our workers can’t pass through international borders, this will undoubtedly cause delays and disruptions in the supply chain. For a sector expected to help drive the global vaccination effort, this is totally unacceptable.”
“While we haven’t seen it yet, we’re definitely concerned that the lack of vaccinations will become an obstacle to the free movement of seafarers this year,” says Bud Darr, Executive Vice President, Maritime Policy and Government Affairs at MSC Group. “The shipping industry needs to find creative solutions to the problem. In the short term this means getting seafarers vaccinations in their countries where there are established programs and sufficient supplies of vaccines.
“In the long term it’s about exploring the idea of public-private partnerships. There may even be the opportunity, when the initial surge of need is met for national allocation, for manufacturers to provide vaccinations directly to shipowners to allocate/administer to these key workers.”
The International Chamber of Shipping is currently exploring all avenues to find a solution. This includes the implementation of vaccinations hubs across key international ports, as suggested by the Cypriot government. If a solution to provide direct access of vaccines to seafarers is not found, shipowners fear a return to the crew change crisis of 2020 that saw 400,000 seafarers stranded on board ships across the world due to travel restrictions and international lockdowns.
Another complication, says Platten is that currently more than 50 vaccines are each at different stages of testing and approval and only some of these have been recognized by WHO as suitable for emergency use. Yet some states are imposing vaccines for seafarers that are not on the WHO list.