New COVID Strains May Deepen Crew Change Crisis
The crew change crisis is set to ramp back up once more, according to crewing firm Danica. Restrictive cross-border movement rules are being imposed again following the emergence of the new, more infectious UK and South African COVID-19 variants, causing airlines to cancel flights and ports to tighten rules on seafarer movement.
“I believe we may be heading for a new crew change crisis every bit as bad as last spring," warned Henrik Jensen, managing director of Danica Crewing Services. "In response to the rapid increase in infections around the world, governments are imposing new or additional measures including travel restrictions. Although these measures are understandable in the circumstances, based on scientific evidence, and intended to provide protection for their populations, they also cause operational and logistical problems for crew changes."
As an example, requirements for seafarers to take a COVID-19 test within a certain time period before travel (as mandated for entrance to Singapore and the U.S.) can be a challenge, depending upon the country of origin. The availability of testing capacity and quarantine accommodations can make compliance difficult.
While the IMO's proposed crew change protocols give port states a helpful template for managing seafarer transits, Jensen says that local regulations are the real governing factor, and uniform international standards "may be a remote dream" - especially when some nations are facing an explosion of domestic cases. “We have seen that, when a country’s health service is at full stretch trying to cope with infected patients, then broad and strict restrictions are imposed quickly," he said. "Sadly we have to realize that, when a country has a citizen dying every minute from Covid-19, then a handful of seafarers of foreign nationality left behind on a vessel are not a high priority for them.”
Compliance aside, the practical challenges created by the new COVID strains are very real. “The new, more infectious variants present a higher risk that a crew member may be infected on the way to the vessel and transfer the infection to his ship mates onboard," Jensen said. “One or more COVID-19 infected patients on a vessel is a very serious situation as there is insufficient medical care available onboard to treat a serious case. It is very difficult to mitigate this risk and in some cases we have to abandon crew change plans if they involve a long transit or a high-risk area.”