The COVID-19 pandemic is a global public health crisis, which places unprecedented restraints to the movement of seafarers for the purposes of crew changes and repatriations. In a circular letter issued on the 27th of March 2020, the IMO has distributed a preliminary list of recommendations for governments and relevant national authorities on the facilitation of crew changes and repatriations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Amongst other things, the IMO specifically urges governments to:
- designate seafarers, regardless of nationality, as ‘key workers’ providing an essential service;
- grant seafarers with any necessary and appropriate exemptions from national travel or movement restrictions in order to facilitate their joining or leaving ships;
- accept, inter alia, official seafarers’ identity documents, discharge books, STCW certificates, seafarer employment agreements and letters of appointment from the maritime employer, as evidence of being a seafarer, where necessary, for the purposes of crew changes;
- permit seafarers to disembark ships in port and transit through their territory (i.e. to an airport) for the purposes of crew changes and repatriation;
- implement appropriate approval and screening protocols for seafarers seeking to disembark ships for the purposes of crew changes and repatriation; and
- provide information to ships and crews on basic protective measures against COVID-19 based on World Health Organisation advice.
While these preliminary recommendations point towards the right direction, still there is a lot that needs to be considered. As recognised ‘key workers’, seafarers will be able to travel to and from a vessel, provided they carry at all times their professional documentation. However, seafarers, who sign off their ships at foreign ports, might not be able to be repatriated, despite their ‘key workers’ status. That is because many countries have now closed their international borders, and so commercial flights have been cancelled until further notice. In these circumstances, it will be up to the seafarers’ country of residency to take appropriate measures for their repatriation.
Furthermore, many countries have now adopted mandatory measures requiring people to self-isolate before they enter their territory depending on whether they had recently visited an affected country. Seafarers will have to adhere to these mandatory measures, irrespective of their ‘key workers’ status. That raises the question as to who should bear the cost for any expenses incurred by seafarers during self-isolation. According to regulation 2.5 of the MLC, 2006, shipowners should cover the costs of repatriation (i.e. travel expenses, food, clothing, accommodation, medical treatment etc) until seafarers are landed at the place of return (i.e. the agreed place under the SEA, the place at which seafarers entered into the SEA or the seafarers’ country of residency). Thus, seafarers who have to self-isolate awaiting repatriation at a foreign country should not bear any costs. It is, however, likely that seafarers who have to self-isolate at the place of return will have to bear the cost for any additional expenses.
Given these complexities, many shipowners now prefer to extend the SEAs instead of signing-off and repatriating crewmembers. However, this cannot be done without the consent of seafarers, unless, of course, the SEAs include a clause to that effect. In any case, any decisions as to the extension of the SEAs should not be taken lightly and should not prejudice the seafarers’ mental health and wellbeing.