Ian Boyd from GAC Group gives readers an update on where the industry stands today in its fight to carry out crew changes.
Back in January 2021 the Neptune Declaration on Seafarer Wellbeing and Crew Change, of which GAC is a signatory, highlighted the key issues preventing crew changes during the global Covid-19 pandemic. It called for urgent action to implement safe and high-quality crew change protocols and address the reduced number of commercial flights available to repatriate seafarers. The conditions for crew changes around the world have improved over the last six months but only incrementally. The same problems persist and with the development of Covid-19 vaccines, a new challenging dimension has been added.
Studies indicate that of the estimated 1.7 million seafarers worldwide, over half come from countries where vaccination programmes lag behind those of richer nations. Many cannot access the vaccines that would facilitate their passage to and from ships.
Adaptability is key
Crew change protocols are still changing constantly as health advice continues to evolve. Closer collaboration with local health and immigration authorities is required, as is maintaining sanitation and social distancing standards. In the UK, crew changes require full preparation and good communication, while the sentiment remains “expect the unexpected” and stand ready for last minute changes.
In Qatar, the procedures and numbers of approvals required have increased but even a minor error by an agent can lead to an extension of vessel quarantine or delay free pratique approval. In Muscat, local Covid-19 and travel advisories continue to be updated and throughout Oman, authorities are supervising crew changes with health precautions being followed very closely. Personnel in Abu Dhabi also note that the number of medical tests required has increased.
The importance of closely following local procedures and ensuring high hygiene standards have been emphasised by crew change managers in many locations. Regulatory requirements can change suddenly in Hong Kong. In Australia, it is especially important to keep up to date with the latest travel restrictions as the country experiences a rise in Covid-19 cases associated with the Delta variant.
In Russia, crew members without a Russian visa face greater difficulties than locals or those from visa-free countries. We recommend that seafarers always obtain a visa, even if they hold a valid Seaman’s Book.
In Panama, digital (not just scanned) documentation is required to satisfy the needs of various local authorities.
States need to act
Clearly, it is important to have trusted agency support when planning crew changes anywhere in the world. Ever changing restrictions on travel into, out of and through different countries combined with a continued lack of scheduled passenger flights make crew changing a persistent challenge in many places.
Efforts by the international shipping community to convince national governments and authorities to recognise seafarers as key workers have made a difference, but international pressure needs to be maintained. By May 2021, 55 IMO Member States had recognised seafarers as essential workers. That figure has now risen to 60 out of a total of 174 Members. Seafarers deserve better.