Seafarers have been impacted by global lockdowns and travel restrictions due to Covid © Getty Images
Seafarers have been impacted by global lockdowns and travel restrictions due to Covid © Getty Images

Seafarer vaccine rules put shipping in ‘impossible position’

22 March 2021

Covid-19 vaccination requirements for seafarers risk “delays and disruptions” in the supply chain, an industry body has warned.

The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) said it had received reports of states insisting all crew be vaccinated as a pre-condition for entering ports.

In a legal document, due to be circulated through the shipping industry later this week, ICS warned any potential requirements combined with a lack of access to vaccinations for seafarers could place shipping in a “legal minefield”.

Crews on ships can originate from over 30 nations at a time, crossing many borders throughout their contracts, ICS said.

Around 900,000 of the world’s seafarers are from developing countries, but it has been estimated many developing nations will not achieve mass immunisation until 2024.

ICS said measures could lead shipowners to cancel voyages if crew members are not vaccinated or risk “legal, financial and reputational damage” by sailing with unvaccinated crews.

“Delays into ports caused by unvaccinated crew would open up legal liabilities and costs for owners, which would not be recoverable from charterers. Furthermore, while owners would be able to address the need for seafarer vaccines in new contracts, owners attempting to change existing contracts or asking crew to receive a specific vaccine requested by a port could open themselves up to legal liabilities,” it added. 

Shipowners fear that failing to address the vaccination issues could lead to a return to the “crew change crisis of 2020” that saw 400,000 seafarers stranded onboard ships due to travel restrictions and international lockdowns, it said. 

ICS said it was currently exploring “all avenues to find a solution”, including the implementation of vaccination hubs across key international ports.

Guy Platten, ICS secretary-general, said shipping firms were in an “impossible position”, with little or no access to vaccines for their workforce, particularly from developing countries.

“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,” he added.

“This is a key issue for shipping but could also have a significant impact across many sectors as international business recovers.”

Bud Darr, executive vice president, maritime policy and government affairs at MSC Group, said: “Seafarers have already given us so much. Navigating quarantines, the suspension of flight routes and health restrictions that have kept them away from their family and friends. All to keep the world supplied with essential goods.

“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 programmes 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.”

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