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EU guidance supports repatriation of cruise passengers, crew

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Recognizing how cruise passengers and crew from all kinds of ships have been stranded in the coronavirus pandemic, the European Commission issued guidance that calls for facilitating repatriation.

The Commission also urged member states to create a network of ports where crew changes can take place without delays.

'Seafarers are keeping the vital channels for our economy and supply chains open, as 75% of EU global trade and 30% of all goods transported within the EU are moved by sea,' Commissioner for Transport Adina Vălean said. New guidance issued last week includes sanitary advice and recommendations for crew changes, disembarking and repatriation of seafarers and passengers.

'I am asking the member states to designate ports where fast-track crew changes take place and recall that cruise operators have a responsibility to their customers and employees to bring everyone safely home,' Vălean added.

Crew changes, designated ports

EU member states currently have different rules on crew changes in their ports. To ensure clarity for all involved, the Commission said member states should follow guidance on facilitating transit arrangements and on the implementation of green lanes. For non-EU nationals who need visas to disembark within the EU and who could not apply for them due to the current situation, member states should grant these at the border so that they may be quickly repatriated.

The guidelines call on member states, in coordination with the Commission, to designate ports around EU shores for fast-track crew changes, with adequate facilities for seafarers to undertake medical checks, quarantine if required by the country and transport connections onward to their home country.

The pandemic has led to extension of some contracts, potentially with a negative impact on wellbeing of seafarers, the Commission noted, adding: In all cases such extensions should take place with the agreement of the individuals concerned.

Cruise ships are still out there

Cruise operators should take overall responsibility for arranging the repatriation of passengers and crews from their cruise ships, including from non-EU ports, the Commission directed.

It called on flag states to help operators identify the appropriate ports for disembarkation and support them in arranging disembarkation and repatriation of their customers and crew. If individuals are known to be infected with the coronavirus, the vessels should be directed to a port in close proximity where hospitals have sufficient capacity.

While all commercial cruises have been suspended until further notice, the Commission cited European Maritime Safety Agency information that between April 8 and 11, 11 cruise ships were approaching Europe, carrying around 8,000 people. More EU citizens, passengers and crew are still on board ships elsewhere, and waiting to return home.

Where cruise ships should dock

For ships flagged in an EU member state, the flag state should allow passengers and crew to disembark in one of its ports and help to make the necessary arrangements for repatriation and access to medical care as appropriate, the Commission said.

If it is not possible or practical for the flag state to accommodate a ship, it should help the cruise ship operators make appropriate arrangements with other EU member states or elsewhere. The arrangements should minimize the time the vessel stays at sea while providing good medical infrastructure and transport connections for repatriations.

If the ship is flying a non-EU flag, member states should accommodate it for humanitarian reasons, the Commission said, but it is recommended they ask the cruise operator to make appropriate financial and logistical arrangements such as required personal protective equipment, facilities for quarantine, hiring of buses and charter flights before docking. If such arrangements are not found, member states should in any case consider disembarking any passengers and crew safely and swiftly, before facilitating their transit home.

Individual member states decide quarantine requirements

Whether crews/passengers should be automatically quarantined when disembarking, the Commission said quarantine requirements are a matter for every individual EU member state.

Throughout the course of docking, if anyone on board presents symptoms compatible with COVID-19 — including sudden onset of at least one of the following: cough, fever or shortness of breath — this should be reported to the competent authority immediately.

Those suspected of having the virus should either disembark and be isolated and treated ashore, or be isolated on board, according to procedures described in the EU Healthy Gateways advice, until asymptomatic, unless their condition worsens and requires hospitalization ashore. Decisions on individual cases will be taken by the port state's competent authority, based on a risk assessment and the situation within the community.

In some cases, crew and/or passengers may be better off staying on board the ship, the Commission stated, provided appropriate sanitary measures are in place. This needs to be assessed by the ship's master and the port state competent authorities on a case-by-case basis.

'For cruise ships, it should be assessed if the air used by the air-conditioning system can be taken exclusively from the outside with less chance of virus spread, or whether it is being re-circulated inside the ship, which could in certain cases lead to the infection of passengers healthy to date,' the guidance stated.

Sanitary recommendations and reporting

Ships must already submit a Maritime Declaration of Health before entering a port. In addition, the Commission recommended approaching vessels communicate — four hours before the estimated time of arrival — the number of people on board and any confirmed or suspected COVID-19 infections.

The health and safety of seafarers and port workers is paramount, the Commission added in calling for personal protective equipment to be made available and used in line with existing recommendations and for seafarers to have access to adequate medical care if in need. Where all members of a crew are healthy and if their previous port call took place more than a fortnight ago, they should not be quarantined when they disembark to repatriate, according to the new guidelines.

Passenger/crew locator form

The Commission said all individuals leaving the ship should be asked to complete a passenger/crew locator form, and the captain should keep this document on board for at least one month. The competent authority should give approval before any individual disembarks, based on an assessment of that person's health.