Monica Lambrou-Whiting, senior claims manager at West P&I, writes for Splash today.
The scale of the problem is colossal. Around 200,000 seafarers were still stranded on commercial vessels at the end of May 2021 according to the IMO, with contracts repeatedly extended beyond the original expiry of their commitments. We have seen some cases where seafarers were barred from leaving their vessels for emergency medical treatment during the early stages of the pandemic, and safe manning rules have created additional costs – often well into five figures – when seafarers have been permitted to leave for treatment.
Even when crew have been able to access treatment, some local hospitals have been overrun by COVID cases and unable to admit them as patients. This often necessitates a costly a medivac to alternative countries where private care is available, further delaying treatment, causing further unnecessary miser to seafarers, and adding thousands in costs.
These kinds of crew issues have accounted for two out of every three coronavirus claims that we have received at West. This has improved, however, as restrictions on crew changes have become more amenable – and is likely to improve further as vaccines are rolled out globally.
Should you vaccinate your crew?
Only government-led vaccination programmes are currently available and without key worker status seafarers are dependent on their own country’s programme. Therefore, vaccines represent an impending challenge for many seafarers, especially those who come from countries with less advanced programmes. For many, it could still be months or years until they are offered their first jab.
Ultimately, whether Members vaccinate their crew is an operational decision that must be properly evaluated by them. Shipowners should carefully consider which crewmembers should be vaccinated whilst on contract, to ensure that any complications – including common vaccine side effects, such as flu-like symptoms – do not lead to manning issues. Alternatively, Members may decide to vaccinate a selection of their crew from each rank to ensure safe manning levels are maintained.
If owners do make such arrangements, they must ensure they do their due diligence beforehand. For example, they should check the local regulations in the country where vaccinations will take place, as well as with their own Flag state. Shipowners should also be aware that the more responsibility a shipowner assumes for vaccinations, the more liability they are consequently likely to assume.
The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), with support from the International Group of P&I Clubs, has introduced new guidance on best practice on crew vaccinations which also spells out the legal liability and insurance implications. From an insurance perspective, West and the other International Group P&I Clubs will cover, in accordance with the crew contract, any illness associated with a crewmember’s reaction to a vaccine in the same way as other illnesses as long as the crew are under contract.
How shipping must change
The scale of sacrifice required from seafarers to keep vital trade routes open has had welfare implications. Prolonged periods of isolation and uncertainty are particularly damaging for mental health. West and other International Group P&I Clubs have seen mental health cases roughly double since the pandemic began compared to previous years. Seafarers need better mental health support now, and when the pandemic has ended.
Longstanding programmes like the Sailors’ Society’s Wellness at Sea initiative were creating better understanding on mental health across the industry before coronavirus. The Sailors’ Society’s research suggests that the initiative reduced the number of seafarers who reported feeling anxious or worried at work by almost ten percentage points compared to those who had not attended any wellness training, and reduced the number of crew that reported feeling sad at work by almost fourteen percentage points.
West is proud to support the Sailors’ Society’s Wellness at Sea programme, and it has been encouraging to see more seafarers and shipowners appreciate the value of wellness programmes. However, this focus must extend further.
Seafarers have delivered the vital supplies that we have all needed to get through successive lockdowns during this pandemic. It seems unfathomable that some of the men and women who have carried out this role are yet to receive the recognition that they deserve. If we truly believe that seafarers are key workers, it’s time to start treating them as such.