Delay due to COVID 19 tests on crew and off-hire.

London Arbitration 13/23 involved an off-hire claim was made by time charterers in respect of a period of delay in transiting the Panama Canal due to the vessel’s quarantine pending the results of PCR tests on the crew. Shortly before the vessel’s arrival at the Panama Canal the Master fell ill on May 24 2021 and the vessel deviated to the nearest port in Puerto Rico to land the master ashore. The next day the master died with the vessel then having an eta at Cristobal for transiting the canal on the morning of 28 May. A test was taken on the deceased master which came back negative and the crew took PCR tests but not until these came back negative was the vessel allowed to come out of quarantine, and the vessel ultimately started its transit of the Panama Canal at 16.47 on 31 May 2021.

Charterers advanced their claim by reference to four clauses, and all were unsuccessful.

1.  cl.15. That in the event of the loss of time from deficiency and/or default and/or strike of crew and/or of men … or by any other cause preventing the full working of vessel, the payment of hire shall cease for the time thereby lost …”

Although in The Apollo [1978] 1 Lloyd’s Rep 200 a delay in berthing awaiting free pratique caused by previous illnesses on board was found to be an off-hire event, the off-hire clause there had included the term “any other cause whatsoever” and it was on the basis of that wording that the charterers had been found able to place the vessel off hire. Here, there was no cause within the terms of clause 15.

2. cl. 38. Certificates/Vaccinations

Owners are obliged to deliver and maintain throughout the currency of this Charter Party the vessel, her crew and anything pertaining hereto supplied with up to date and complete certificates (including Oil Pollution Certificates), approvals, equipment and fittings enabling the vessel and her crew to trade within the trading limits … Officers and crew to comply with vaccination and sanitary regulations in all ports of call and corresponding certificates to be available on board, enabling the vessel to obtain radio free pratique.

If requested, Owners to provide Charterers with copies of any certificates/approvals.

Any time lost and all proven and directly related expenses resulting from Owners’ non-compliance with the above to be for Owners’ account and may be deducted from hire.”

This clause was concerned with the kind of certificates, approvals and vaccinations that the owners would be able to procure, arrange or ensure had been obtained in advance to be maintained on board for the purposes of the service, rather than the more transitory PCR tests in issue, the need for which only arose as a result of the master’s unexpected death during the course of the voyage and which were necessarily only valid for a limited period of time.

PCR tests obtained before the vessel set out on the voyage would have been of no assistance by the time the vessel reached Panama as the requirement of the Panamanian authorities was for tests to be undertaken on arrival. The vessel complied with the authorities’ requirements in producing the negative PCR test results for the crew and there was no question of any non-compliance by the owners under the clause.

3. cl.55. Off Hire

“… in the event of loss of time … caused by sickness of or accident to the crew … or capture/seizure or threatened detention by any authority/legal process … the hire shall be suspended from the time of inefficiency until the vessel is again efficient in the same and equidistant position in Charterers’ option and voyage resumed therefrom. All extra expenses incurred including bunkers consumed during a period of suspended hire shall be for Owners account …”

The requirement for the crew to provide satisfactory PCR test results did not amount to a detention or threatened detention of the vessel.” Detention”  involved something more than mere delay and required some element of restriction and restraint that was clearly not present here.

4. cl.58. Panama/Suez Canal

“Owners warrant that the vessel is fitted for the transit of the Suez and Panama Canal in loaded and/or ballast condition and complies with all and any regulations of the relevant canal authority and shall not be subject to any conditions of transit not customarily required by the relevant canal authority whether pursuant to their regulations or otherwise.

Should the vessel not comply with all warranties contained in this clause and/or any regulations or conditions of transit laid down by the relevant authority, Charterers may suspend hire for all time lost and Owners to pay all expenses arising as a consequence of Owners’ failure to comply with the warranty.”

The Tribunal held that the clause was clearly concerned with the fittings of the vessel and its suitability for transit of both the Panama and Suez Canals. It did not contain a provision and code dealing with the (ultimately unjustified) concerns about Covid-19 that arose following the death of the master.

Accordingly the vessel had not gone off-hire.