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UN agencies call for urgent action on crew changes

The heads of the maritime, labor and aviation organizations of the United Nations issued a plea for urgent action on crew changes and for keyworker designation so that sea and air workers can be relieved and repatriated in a safe way during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a joint statement, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), International Maritime Organization (IMO) and International Labor Organization (ILO) advised that from the middle of June, around 150,000 seafarers a month will require international flights to ensure crew changeovers can take place. Half of these seafarers need to be repatriated home by aircraft, the other half will be joining ships.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, large numbers of seafarers have had to extend their service on board ships after many months at sea, unable to be replaced or repatriated after long tours of duty. This is unsustainable, both for the safety and wellbeing of seafarers and the safe operation of maritime trade.

Cruise ships repatriating crew

Cruise ship crews have been caught in this situation. Companies like Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings have arranged numerous charter flights but the closure of Manila airport for a couple weeks this month added complications. A number of operators have resorted to sailing their crew home.

Just last week, Royal Caribbean Chairman and CEO Richard Fain said nine of his company's ships were transporting more than 10,000 crew. Recently, Celebrity Infinity picked up some crew from Celebrity Apex who were not able to get home from France. Silversea Cruises has ships en route to the Philippines and Europe. Earlier, Carnival Cruise Line undertook its own by-ship repatriation, also with nine vessels carrying 10,000 crew. 

Humanitarian reasons

'For humanitarian reasons — and the need to comply with international safety and employment regulations — crew changes cannot be postponed indefinitely,' the joint UN statement said. 'We are seeking the support of governments to facilitate crew changes, operations essential to maintain the global cargo supply chains and operations related to humanitarian aid, medical and relief flights.'

During the COVID-19 pandemic, travel is being curtailed to prevent spread of the disease. Some ports and airports remain closed due to travel restrictions, with ships and aircraft denied entry, and/or have introduced restrictive measures for foreign nationals traveling to or from the country. As a result, seafarers around the world are stranded on board, unable to be repatriated home or replaced by relief crews

'Key worker' designation urged

The three organizations urge 'key worker' designation for seafarers, marine personnel, fishing vessel personnel, offshore energy sector personnel, aviation personnel, air cargo supply chain personnel and service provider personnel at airports and ports, regardless of nationality. Governments are urged to exempt these personnel from travel restrictions, to ensure crew changes can be carried out and that they have access to emergency medical treatment and, if necessary, to facilitate emergency repatriation.

The joint statement says governments and relevant national and local authorities should implement already-agreed guidance, issued by ICAO, IMO, ILO and the World Health Organization, including on keyworker designation. This includes permitting seafarers, marine personnel, fishers and offshore energy sector personnel to disembark and embark ships in port and transit through their territory (i.e. to an airport) for the purpose of crew changes and repatriation; and implementing appropriate approval and screening protocols.

Earlier this month, IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim endorsed a series of protocols developed by a broad cross-section of global maritime industry associations to ensure that ship crew changes can take place safely during the COVID-19 pandemic.