Covid-19 and the Crew: THE HUMAN COST
While many countries now assess themselves as past the peak of daily Covid-19 death and new case counts, any return to normality for societal behaviour appears postponed until further notice.
Shipping’s ‘post-Covid’ new normal is also proving hard to predict, although the consequences of coronavirus will likely involve complex charterparty disputes and high-profile cruise sector insurance claims.
For now, these remain matters for tomorrow, as industry priorities rightly focus on the here and now, including the welfare of the estimated 1.6 million people working at sea.
In the face of an ‘invisible enemy’, a seafarer would be justified in experiencing Covid-19 anxiety should a colleague develop respiratory problems. On the other hand, an individual may conclude – not unreasonably - that observing social distancing on board a ship populated by broadly healthy individuals is less risky than returning to their home land.
In line with its commitment to allow Members to trade with confidence, North P&I Club and its worldwide network of correspondents have been advising on, interpreting, and responding to rapidly changing circumstances and updated country/port regulations. We have also been working tirelessly with local officials on behalf of seafarers and, where necessary, facilitating telemedicine services, where medical assistance ashore is being delayed or even denied.
In April, the International Group launched a new Tracking Tool developed by North, which is updated daily to provide the latest location-specific global virus advice for Members.
Some of the many and varied types of crew-related claims that can be expected to result from Covid-19 have begun to crystallise: to date, most of the day to day challenges have arisen not from coronavirus itself, but from the preventative actions taken by nation States in order to protect their nationals.
In recent weeks, our experience of disembarkation restrictions has included a heart attack victim having to wait 10 days for an assessment ashore, a broken leg that went untreated until the seafarer returned to his home country and a hand injury that became infected due to delay and lack of antibiotics.
For seafarers this is no less distressing than potentially being exposed to coronavirus. Even disembarking those who have sadly died on board, irrespective of how, has become extremely complicated. Recently, after authorities working under Covid-19 restrictions refused to take ashore the body of a seafarer, we became involved in arranging the first burial at sea of my career.
Together with its IG colleagues, North is currently contributing to a dossier of such cases for International Maritime Organization (IMO) consideration.
An IMO Circular and an April 14 European Commission notice of ‘Guidelines on protection of health, repatriation and travel arrangements for seafarers, passengers and other persons on board ships’ have strong points to make on related topic but both lack the bite of regulation.
Another well-documented consequence of Covid-19 has been the need for seafarers to extend their contracts by at least a month. Whilst this does not affect their Seafarer Employment Agreement (SEA) rights and their protection under the MLC, under which the owner is responsible for repatriating the seafarer with pay due until arrival home, it can nonetheless be extremely stressful for both the crew and their families at home.
Some crew remaining on board beyond their initial contract period may also find that their enhanced PEME (pre-employment medical examination) has expired. However, at North we are continually in consultation with our clinics to find solutions where possible in liaison with our retained doctor.
Concerns over the well-being of seafarers have nonetheless rightly gained traction in the maritime press and beyond, with colleagues ashore experiencing a supercharged empathy as they get their own taste of what it means to ‘work remotely’.
One common area of concern for those ashore and at sea has been the lack of a robust testing regime, especially at a time when fraudster puishing scams have turned to PPE. Although there is no doubt that special consideration is due to those working at sea, even should testing be available, privately obtained kits are often unreliable and test results have sometimes taken over two weeks to obtain, and although most now take 2-3 days, this remains a very anxious time for crew as well as causing a delay to the vessel.
Whilst The EC guidelines published late last month go so far as to recommend crew
s should be tested for disease before they embark, as noted this is not mandatory. Members may therefore have to rely on securing answers to verbal questions before crew leave home and checking their temperature at embarkation as well as having a strictly adhered to quarantine policy for anyone who later displays Covid-19 symptoms.
These and many other issues are currently the focus of the Covid-19 Working Group set up by the 13-member International Group. Although there are slight variations between each Club’s own Rules, we are working together for solutions to provide meaningful advice to Members in these strange and unprecedented times.
*Director Belinda Ward heads North P&I Club Personal Injury claims team; also sits on the International Group Covid-19 Working Group, in the committees 'IG Qualification', 'Occupational Diseases' and 'Amicus Briefs'. She reads Economics at Newcastle University and have completed a part-time law degree.