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China Bans Crew Changes on Two Fleets Showing the Ongoing Challenge

China bans crew changes
15 crew members on the Omicron Sky tested positive for the virus (Omicron Ship Management)

Published Feb 8, 2021 4:00 PM by The Maritime Executive

After agreeing to permit crew changes aboard some of the bulk carriers stuck waiting off its coast, China’s Ministry of Transportation announced actions to bar two shipping companies from conducting crew changes due to the discovery of the coronavirus during rest tests aboard two ships. At the same time, the Philippines is relaxing some of the temporary measures it implemented at the end of 2020, but it still highlights the challenges seafarers face due to the controls institute in response to the virus.

Chinese officials reported that recently 15 crew members aboard the 77,000 dwt bulk carrier Omicron Sky tested positive for the coronavirus. The Liberian-flagged vessel, which is managed by Omicron Ship Management, is currently docked in Zhoushan China. The Ministry of Transport also reported that 21 crew members aboard another bulk carrier, the 76300 dwt Asia Spring also tested positive for the virus. This Panamanian-flagged vessel was permitted to depart China in mid-January and is currently sailing to Japan.

“The nucleic acid test for the virus was positive” write the Ministry of Transport, “revealing that the ship or the shipping company to which the ship belongs has failed to effectively perform the main responsibility for the prevention and control of the new epidemic, preventive measures are not in place, and the prevention and control effect is not obvious.”

Because the crew tested positive, the Chinese authorities are suspending crew changes for 30 days aboard all of the vessels managed both by Omicron Ship Management and Dia Yuan International Shipping Co., which manages the Asia Spring. Also, if any additional crew members aboard any of the companies' ships test positive during the suspension period, the ban will be extended. Six vessels from Omicron and 17 from Dia Yuan are included in this action.

Recently, Chinese officials had agreed to permit a number of the ships that remain stuck off the northern ports to conduct crew changes in what was being called a humanitarian effort. The Indian crews aboard two ships had become the face of the ordeal faced by numerous ships that have been blocked from offloading their cargo, mostly coal, in Northern China. The local officials have blamed coronavirus restrictions while it is widely believed the ships are caught in a trade dispute between China and Australia.

The Indian government intervened with repeated efforts to the Chinese authorities appealing for permission to permit crew changes for their sailors. Last week it was announced that a crew change would be permitted for the second ship while the first had sailed to Japan for its crew change. Recently, 13 Italian crew members working aboard the bulk carriers Antonella Lembo and MBA Giovanni were also permitted to be part of crew changes in China after the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs Luigi di Maio appealed to the Chinese authorities. The Italian sailors recently arrived home in Italy after having been away for up to 16 months. The two ships remain among the vessels anchored off China. 

While the situation in China highlights the difficulties of completing crew changes, the Philippines last week rolled back its temporary restrictions introduced at the end of 2020 after the announcement of the new strains of the virus found in the U.K. and South Africa. Crew members are again permitted to sign off in the Philippines, but they must go into a seven-day quarantine and test negative for the virus on the sixth day. Philippine immigration authorities highlighted that since establishing their fast lane program to support crew changes, 112,220 seafarers were processed in 2020. This included 92,931 Filipinos and 19,289 foreigners of varying nationalities.