Calls Grow for Vaccine Priority for Maritime Workers

Written by Heather Ervin

December 2020

With both the United Nations and the U.S. saying maritime workers are essential, it’s important that we ask whether those workers should be prioritized before the general, less-at-risk population. As of now, it looks as though it may be up to shipping bodies to push for national governments to make that happen.

Looking towards 2021, Crew Welfare Director Sophia Bullard at UK P&I Club recently commented on the anticipated rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine by saying that “once the vaccines have passed the scrutiny of the various government regulatory agencies, we will see them filter into the workforce. Seafarers, as identified key workers and a vital cog in the global trade mechanism, should be near the front of the queue. Mass vaccination will make global shipping operations more efficient and cost effective, and will significantly ease the current freedom of movement restrictions on seafarers.”

Bullard says that the UK Club’s Pre-employment Medical Examination Program will consider a vaccine adoption at crew entry level, and shipping companies may opt for their crew to be vaccinated as a prerequisite of employment.

“Theoretically, with travel and quarantine constraints removed, it should mean the end to difficulties surrounding repatriation and crew changes, which became a humanitarian crisis in 2020,” adds Bullard. “This in turn would lessen the load on seafarers from a mental health perspective, and bring a return to much needed normality in 2021.”

In the U.S., meanwhile, two Federal Maritime Commissioners, Carl Bentzel and Daniel Maffei, are urging not only that rapid COVID-19 testing be made available as soon as possible to the essential maritime labor force but also that these workers should also be prioritized for early vaccination.

In a letter to Maritime Administrator Rear Adm. Mark Buzby and CDC Director Robert Redfield, they note that “within the last month, there have been at least three major COVID-19 outbreaks (Charleston, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles/Long Beach) impacting the immediate health of the workforce, causing substantial requirements for quarantine, and threatening freight movement through these ports.”

The commissioners say that if maritime workers are infected, then the supply chain essentially will become infected. While it’s imperative that we ensure the continuity of the maritime workforce to keep vital cargoes moving, it is important that maritime workers understand the need to comply with vaccine mandates for COVID-19.

Many ports, shipyards, operators and crew have access to PPE supplies, such as masks, and rapid testing for now. It’s just a matter of time before access to the vaccine for essential workers is available and perhaps only then will things return to an almost normal state once again.

With perhaps one of the most challenging years drawing to an end, here’s to hoping for a better, safer, healthier and more productive 2021. Cheers!

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