An enduring image on TV screens at the outbreak of the covid-19 pandemic was one of cruise ships being refused docking permission at ports around the globe. While sympathies were extended to the holidaymakers trapped onboard, not everybody appreciated the fact that the crew members were also incarcerated. Worse still, while passengers were eventually repatriated, many of the crew remained unable to leave their vessel due to complex passport, quarantine and visa arrangements that had been hastily introduced with the intention of restricting travel across the globe. Less high proGle still was the fate of the much larger number of men and women operating within the various merchant Heets across the world. The shipping industry accounts for 80% to 90% of global trade, providing the transport of important goods such as food, medicines and raw materials. Seafarers have played a vital role in keeping supplies Howing throughout the past 18 months, yet many states still fail to recognise them as "key workers". Where this is the case, seafarers are bound by the same travel restrictions as ordinary civilians. This rendered shore leave and crew changes impossible for many. Those who were able to disembark but needed to travel by air to their home country, often found themselves stranded due to air traMc disruption. The scale of the problem was colossal, and it was estimated that at the end of September 2020 some 400,000 seafarers remained stranded on-board commercial vessels with contracts necessarily renewed ad inGnitum to ensure the continuation of supply chains.

Key worker status for seafarers

Cyprus is a leading Hag nation and, as such, both past Shipping Deputy Minster (SDM) Natasha Pilides and the incumbent, Vassillios Demetriades, have been keen to stress that safety onboard Cyprus Hagged vessels is of paramount importance to the state. Some studies attribute 96% of shipping accidents to human error and it is well evidenced that fatigue can be a big factor in this. The fatigue, isolation, lack of medical care and anxiety that many seafarers have suffered and continue to suffer, because of the pandemic could have a severe detrimental impact on offshore safety. Recognising this, Cyprus was one of the Grst countries in the world to label seafarers as "key workers" and to implement a formal crew change process. Since May 2020 these measures have allowed more than 14,000 seafarers to be either repatriated or returned to work. Not content with this, however, the SDM has been keen to push for a practical and coordinated solution to the problem of stranded seafarers at global level. This has yet to emerge. Even though the UN General Assembly passed a resolution designating seafarers as key workers in December 2020, only 58 states have so far complied and, in many, the status has been granted in name only, leaving the barriers to travel Grmly in place. Demetriades' approach has proved to be the exception rather than the rule.

Neptune Declaration

The SDM, the government and the key shipping companies based in Cyprus have consistently co-operated to promote social responsibility and the adoption of a pro-active approach to addressing the global challenges facing shipping – including those caused by covid-19. Consequently, in February 2021 the Cyprus Shipping Chamber, along with many international stakeholders, became a signatory to the 2021 Neptune Declaration, which principally called on all governments to echo the actions of the Cyprus government and:

  • recognise seafarers as key workers and give them priority access to covid-19 vaccines;
  • establish and implement gold standard health protocols based on existing best practice;
  • increase collaboration between ship operators and charterers to facilitate crew changes; and
  • ensure air connectivity between key maritime hubs for seafarers.

Delivering covid-19 vaccinations to seafarers

The continuation of the pandemic and the emergence of new variants has placed seafarers in a higher risk category than most individuals. This, combined with the introduction of further restrictive measures, such as the introduction of a European vaccine passport for quarantine free travel, effectively means that the covid-19 vaccination has become a health and economic necessity for them. Indeed, it is likely that many shipping companies will, in future, refuse to hire a non-vaccinated person. Key worker status alone is no longer suMcient to clear all crew change problems. However, a comprehensive vaccination programme for seafarers faces two major issues:

  • the vaccine needs to be given onshore where full medical facilities are available to deal with possible side-effects; and
  • many seafarers originate from countries where vaccine rollout is poor.

In response to these diMculties the Cyprus SDM, in February 2020, put forward a programme consisting of two strands:

  • short sea shipping – this rests on the view that, for the personnel involved, national measures should be workable and regional cooperation relatively easy to achieve; and
  • long distance shipping (eg, deep sea Gshing vessels and intercontinental vessels) – this suggests that personnel on board should be designated as an isolated bubble and vaccination provision made accordingly.

This approach to global vaccination was oMcially adopted by the International Labour Organisation in May 2021. It requires full consultation between all stakeholders, governments and the International Maritime Organisation to allow for comprehensive mapping of the number of vaccines required and the locations where they should be sited to ensure that vaccination of all seafarers can take place. Additionally, the SDM has invited all governments, shipowners' and seafarers' associations to formulate a resolution communicating to relevant UN bodies the necessity of a collective approach to secure the vaccines required. The SDM is currently in active discussions with the International Chamber of Shipping and the International Transport Workers Federation to plan a way to ensure that the resolution is not only passed but ensures that its implementation becomes a reality.

Moving forward

One aspect of the crew change problems caused by covid-19 which Demetriades has welcomed, is that it has raised the welfare of seafarers to a much higher level than it has ever previously occupied on the world stage. Addressing the crew change problem is just one aspect of instilling high safety standards at sea. The SDM continually stresses the importance of ensuring that all vessels are maintained to a high standard so that neither the lives of crew nor of rescuers are subject to unnecessary risk. It urges that, despite the pandemic, ship inspections, audits and surveys should be maintained in compliance with best practice and international regulations and conventions. The industry is amid enormous change as as it adapts to new regulation, the digitalisation of its operations and requirements for greener practices. The Cypriot shipping industry intends to be at the forefront of these changes with safety of crew as a constant bedfellow.

Originally Published by International Law Office

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