SAFETY September 2020 Rapidly shifting landscape for crew change causes alarm Recurring spikes in COVID-19 infections are leading national authorities to alter their stance on crew changes virtually overnight, leaving ship operators and crew in limbo. Crew change during the COVID-19 pandemic is an ongoing issue, with access and regulations changing rapidly by various governments in response to domestic infection rates. Although this has been an issue on the maritime industry’s horizon from the start of this year, progress has been slow as many governments are struggling to prevent the spread of the virus and are opting to close their borders. The maritime community has been making a concerted effort to establish safety measures that would assuage government doubts, and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and a cross industry working group led by the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) have both released guidance for crew change and travel. In early July, the UK government hosted an international crew change summit which led 13 countries (including the Philippines, UAE, Denmark, and the US) to agree to specific measures to facilitate crew change going forward. These efforts come as high-profile crewing hubs including Singapore, Hong Kong and India (none of which are signatories to the summit pledge) have slowly begun allowing crew changes if ship operators complied with each nation’s rules. Crew change – a massive coordination effort At end-July, Anglo-Eastern celebrated successfully completing 10,000 crew changes on more than 700 ships, and GAC India successfully repatriated just under 3,000 Indian seafarers from cruise ships belonging to Holland America Line, Princess Cruises and Seabourn as well as assisted crew members signing on to vessels. Ponting out that many crew members around the world had been forced to remain on vessels even after their contracts had expired, as they were unable to sign off due to COVID-19 restrictions, Mark Delaney, Managing Director of GAC India praised his team for their efforts to safely bring these seafarers home. “The GAC teams fully understood the rules and local regulations and guidelines and carried out the crew change operations in accordance with appropriate State protocols,” he said, explaining that this was a rigorous process. The repatriated crew members included those who had disembarked the cruise company vessels in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and Manila, Philippines, and were transported to their home cities via chartered flights. “All the flights were Holland America Group-chartered flights and GAC India coordinated with the ground handling team of the respective flight operators and their Airport Clearance Teams. After the crew members were cleared from the airport terminal, GAC took over and made the logistics arrangements including transfers to hotels and arrangements for COVID-19 tests and also coordinated with the local authorities ... and the RPSL Agent for Holland America Group in India ... for their final clearances,” he said, adding: “We expect crew changes to be permitted again once we have passed the COVID-19 peak, with fewer cases and at lower levels of lockdown. When this happens, GAC as a whole expects to be inundated with crew change enquiries and business, so we are gearing up for that.” Crew change challenged if COVID-19 cases spike These plans may fall flat if governments close their borders to crew in response to a surge in infections - as was the case in Hong Kong just a week after GAC repatriated the seafarers. The local authorities announced that it was restricting to vessels bringing cargo specifically to Hong Kong, with all other port calls and crew changes, including those from passenger vessels, suspended as of July 29th. The measures were put into place after a number of seafarers allowed in the city were found to be amongst confirmed cases of the virus. Crew members seeking to head home from Hong Kong must now have taken a nucleic acid test for COVID-19 conducted at an approved laboratory with the sample taken during a 48-hour window prior to their having boarding the ship from their original port. Even with a negative result, crew would have to remain onboard their vessels awaiting a point-to-point transfer to their outgoing flight. There have also been suggestions that Hong Kong temporarily suspend all crew changes from vessels aside from those registered under the national flag and those owned by companies registered in Hong Kong. Similar suggestions have also been made to the Singaporean authorities who are planning their actions in case of another spike in infections. This news led to an outpouring of concern on social media from crew members who were worried that closed borders would see a return to the uncertainty that they have been battling for most of this year – with many seafarers talking about the toll that this takes on their mental health. In fact, data from the most recent Mission to Seafarers’ Seafarers Happiness Index reveals a continuing decline of happiness at sea, largely due to the inability of seafarers to sign off and return home. “Heavy workloads, virus fears and a perceived lack of COVID-19 precautions on board vessels are exacerbating the decline in satisfaction. Without immediate action, there are significant risks for the mental and physical wellbeing of crew and a growing risk to safety,” it stated, tallying data gathered between April and September 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Overall, seafarer happiness has dropped from 6.30 in Q1 2020 to 6.18 in Q2 2020.” Crew change protocols must be adopted The potential walking back of crew change arrangements has also alarmed many of the organisations that have been championing crew change as a right that should be extended to seafarers as key workers. Guy Platten, Secretary General of ICS said: “We are concerned about recent incidents and the reaction of some administrations. The situation is very delicate as governments are having to deal with many challenges because of the pandemic but we must remember that the vast majority of shipowners are going to extraordinary lengths to safely repatriate crew and return them home to their families. Acts that are only made possible by governments adopting the crew change protocols,” Platten said. “It’s also vital that ship managers and crewing agents follow the 12-step protocols to ensure the safety of our seafarers and those around them, which in turn will reassure governments. The very reason the 12-step protocols where produced was to ensure that crew change can be undertaken safely, minimising the risk of transmission to seafarers and the public alike,” he said, reminding readers that the cross-industry working group has produced a poster to remind the industry of the guidance. Platten believes that governments and maritime stakeholders must continue to work together to resolve the situation. “We must stand firm as an industry and work together to ensure we maintain the highest standards possible, continuing on the positive momentum gained over recent weeks to ensure that we get back to 100% crew change.” Connect with BIMCO Without immediate action, there are significant risks for the mental and physical wellbeing of crew and a growing risk to safety Facebook Twitter Linkedin YouTube By Namrata Nadkarni, Journalist and maritime content creator Data from the most recent Mission to Seafarers’ Seafarers Happiness Index reveals a continuing decline of happiness at sea The vast majority of shipowners are going to extraordinary lengths to safely repatriate crew and return them home to their families Photo (top): iStock / Igor-Kardasov Namrata Nadkarni is the Founder and CEO of maritime content creation firm Intent Communications, and an award-winning journalist. In addition to writing for publications including Ship and Offshore, Break Bulk magazine, Safety at Sea, The Marine Professional, Lloyd’s List, and Seatrade, she has extensive experience creating, hosting and marketing events, and is chairperson for the Maritime UK Events and Communications working group. She is passionate about crew welfare, environmental regulation, diversity and inclusion, and technology.