The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about an unprecedented scenario in the way humanity handles matters. The maritime industry has not been spared of this crisis and Port States have, as a means of trying to cope with the pandemic enacted a number of inconsistent measures, whose net result has been the literal marooning of seafarers on their vessels well beyond the seafarers’ sign-off dates. Regulations in the aviation sector were also, most often, inconsistent with those in the maritime sector, so that air travel, and the impediments for mariners in transit, also emerged as a major constraint.
In late September, this year, the crisis gained the recognition of the United Nations General Assembly. Flag States (i.e. nations that have registered ships) have also tried to enact measures with regard to the ships registered in their registries, but as would be expected, in the absence of uniform international standards, these measures have also been inconsistent.
It is in this regard that the International Maritime Organization (IMO), through its Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) has recognized an important reference set of protocols to ensure safe ship crew changes and travel during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The IMO’s detailed update on the same can be found on https://www.imo.org/en/MediaCentre/PressBriefings/pages/41-crew-change-protocols.aspx
The MSC meeting (the 102nd Session of the same) was held virtually, the first time the MSC is holding a meeting virtually, between the 4th to the 11th of September, 2020 and recognized the industry-developed protocols, which set out general measures and procedures designed to ensure that ship crew changes and travel can take place safely during the pandemic. The Protocols are contained in a previously issued circular letter which can be found on https://wwwcdn.imo.org/localresources/en/MediaCentre/HotTopics/Documents/COVID%20CL%204204%20adds/Circular%20Letter%20No.4204-Add.14%20-%20Coronavirus%20%28Covid-19%29%20-%20Recommended%20Framework%20Of%20Protocols.pdf.
According to the IMO, “currently, hundreds of thousands of seafarers are stranded on board ships, having seen their contracts extended beyond the maximum duration of service periods accepted under international treaties, i.e. less than 12 months, and a similar number of seafarers are waiting to join ships.”
Key to the new Protocols is that they “…emphasize the need for Governments to designate seafarers as key workers, providing an essential service…” and also “…include practical steps for joining and leaving ships, including the need for compliance and strict adherence with COVID-19 testing and quarantine requirements, and measures to prevent infection on board ships.” The IMO describes the Protocols as “a living document which will be updated in line with developments concerning the pandemic.” With the designation of seafarers as key workers, it is hoped that closed doors will be opened and movements, including repatriations (or bringing out fresh crew) can be hastened.
Even in normal times, travellers, and those serving them, have been aided by symbols on documents, on luggage, and at certain gateways and within passenger terminals, that smooth their passages through and it is in this regard that another aspect of the MSC meeting is the proposed development of an insignia applicable to mariners in transit. The IMO proposes that these symbols be prepared in conjunction with the working with the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which deals with airports and air travel. The IMO says that, “such a logo will have a longer-term benefit by guiding seafarers to services which should ultimately support better safety outcomes.”
Of course, the challenge for the IMO, is that its successes are only as good as the timeliness and effectiveness of its member States in implementation of “guidance” (or outright measures) into practice. As such, it is important for member States to review their policies and keep them in tandem with the protocols approved by the IMO.