Pre-planning of crew changes remains critically important

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Shipping crew change crisis and vaccinations

Crew changes are still managed on a case-by-case basis in light of updates to health and travel advisories [Credit: GAC Group)

By Ian Boyd, Group Sales Director – Shipping, GAC Group

Conditions for crew changes around the world have improved in the last six months, but only incrementally, and the limited availability of vaccinations is likely to continue the disruption, says Boyd.

Hopes for an easing of the crew change crisis have receded despite the best efforts of the maritime industry to have seafarers recognized as key workers. For well over a year, those involved in crew logistics have faced multi-faceted challenges as government instructions and medical advice change, sometimes daily.

What’s more, many seafarers still cannot access the vaccines that could help facilitate their passage to and from work. The latest figures from the International Chamber of Shipping indicate that, despite noted improvements in rates of vaccination for seafarers, only 25% are fully vaccinated, and most are not expected to receive a vaccine through their national programs until at least 2022.

Some IMO member states have worked to improve seafarer vaccination rates: the U.S., India, Germany, Cyprus, Belgium, Netherlands and Australia to name a few. Donations received through the Global Maritime Forum’s Neptune Declaration on Seafarer Wellbeing and Crew Change have also helped.

But while kudos is due to those that have made special effort to boost vaccine rates, more still needs to be done. Developed nations should use their vaccine stocks to boost dedicated vaccination programs for seafarers passing through recognized hubs such as Singapore, Rotterdam, UAE ports and Houston. Regrettably, this is easier said than done, so pre-planning of crew changes remains critically important, as does the ability to adapt to changes in procedure at short notice.

Varied Challenges Around the World

In Oman, the GAC team reports that authorities are closely monitoring crew change procedures and the precautions to minimize the risk of spreading COVID-19. GAC has earned their support, but crew changes are still managed on a case-by-case basis in light of updates to health and travel advisories.

In Abu Dhabi, our team notes that the number of procedures and medical tests required has increased, depending on the nationalities of the seafarers involved.

In India, GAC has been successful in managing the preparation and coordination of crew changes, even when last-minute information and action has been required. In a recent case, GAC assisted in the urgent medical evacuation of a seriously ill COVID-infected crewmember at an Indian port. Navigating the complex bureaucracy took concerted effort and liaison with the authorities to minimize any delays in arranging for his disembarkation and timely treatment.

Maintaining strict sanitation and social distancing standards is critical. Even a small mishap can delay vessel quarantine or free pratique approval, so GAC’s offices globally have adapted quickly to ensure that the highest standards are maintained.

Over time, the development of checklists and standard requests for information from customers has helped GAC to ensure the offices have all the necessary information on hand when dealing with local authorities. But requirements can vary. GAC Panama, for instance, notes the need for unified and digital (not just scanned) information to satisfy the various needs of different local authorities.

In Europe, more coordination and closer contact with local immigration and health authorities is the new normal.

In Russia, crewmembers without a Russian visa face greater difficulties than locals or those from visa-free countries. GAC’s recommendation here is that seafarers should always obtain a visa, even if they hold a valid Seaman’s Book.

In Australia, where some states are now facing a resurge in cases, keeping up-to-date on local travel restrictions is particularly important.

GAC Sri Lanka has worked closely with the authorities to perform direct bulk crew changes using exclusive charter flights. With special permission, they have conducted emergency disembarkations at the country’s ports, including a sick passenger from a cruise vessel, which was eventually granted on humanitarian grounds.

Solution for Security Teams

The transfer of armed guards remains a challenge. In the past, security teams on board floating armories around the Red Sea, Western Indian Ocean and Gulf of Oman were not allowed to disembark due to stringent regulations, but when the number of COVID-19 positive cases onboard started to spike, GAC Sri Lanka invested in a villa complex as an accommodation solution for private maritime security companies and law enforcement officers.

Pressure Needs to be Maintained

With crews remaining onboard beyond their contracted period, stress and fatigue continues to be an issue in parallel with the potential for serious illness because of the slow vaccination rollout. Further, with new variants of the virus emerging, the industry is unlikely to have experienced everything COVID-19 pandemic has to throw at it yet.

Efforts by the international shipping community to convince national governments and authorities to recognize seafarers as key workers have made a difference, but not enough. International pressure needs to be maintained. Out of a total of 174 IMO Member States, only 60 have recognized seafarers as essential workers. GAC urges everyone in the industry to continue their support for seafarers and asks them to keep up the pressure. As a ship agent responsible for port and husbandry services, GAC will continue to evolve its response and to offer support globally.

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