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Coronavirus: Hong Kong under pressure to suspend crew changes

While the government remains supportive of safe and efficient crew rotation in the city, the sharp surge of local virus cases lately has led local shipping associations to recommend a halt of the activities for several weeks

At least six vessels are said to be anchoring in Hong Kong waters under a 14-day quarantine period after infected crew members were found on board

SHIPPING associations in Hong Kong have advised their members to suspend crew rotation in the city, where new cases of coronavirus infection have hit a record high.

The move comes as several cargo ships are reportedly being quarantined in local anchorages as more arriving seafarers are found to have contracted the virus.

The struggles for local authorities and the maritime community between facilitating crew changes and battling the health crisis was implied in a circular sent by the Hong Kong Liner Shipping Association to its members earlier this week.

“In view of the sharp increase in cases being reported in Hong Kong in the last couple of weeks… HKLSA has been in discussion with the HK government on what we can do to help minimize further infections, and how we can help ensure sufficient medical resources and space are being made available for local residents,” said the group.

“The Hong Kong government continues to be supportive of international guidelines and recommendations on safe and efficient crew change while [at the] same time balancing concerns with the growth [in] new cases.

“Despite the existing protocol that has been put in place for crew change in Hong Kong, we have experienced cases where infected crew have come through Hong Kong and are adding to the strain on Health Department resources.”

The move comes after the Singapore Shipping Association issued a circular noting several cases in the past week of crew arriving in the city state with coronavirus symptoms, such as severe high temperatures.

The HKLSA said while it had no authority to enforce any temporary halt of crew changeover, it had agreed with the government on a recommendation for its members to minimise the activities in the city in the coming several weeks.

The suspension will last from July 22 to August 22, 2020, while exemptions will be allowed between July 22–26 for any arrangements already scheduled or for compassionate humanitarian cases, according to the circular.

Lloyd’s List understands that a similar advisory note has also been sent by the Hong Kong Shipowners Association to its members.

A person familiar with the matter said the associations were under pressure because they had previously strongly recommended that the government ease restrictions on crew changes — moves which have been blamed for contributing to the latest surge of infections.

Hong Kong confirmed 543 new cases, including 480 classified as local, over the past week, following 256 cases (207 local) the previous week.

The Asian maritime hub was among the frontrunners in opening its border to crew changeovers in an effort to support this crucial element of international trade.

It allowed vessels without cargo operations to change crew shifts at its port in early June, soon after it exempted seafarers entering the city from quarantine measures.

The government tightened the rules on July 10, with the introduction of mandatory virus tests for incoming seafarers travelling via Hong Kong airport.

But the measure appears not to have been sufficient to safeguard crew on arriving cargo ships from being infected with the virus, according to a report on July 23 from local news outlet HK01.com.

Citing an email sent by a Marine Department officer to local shipping firms, the report listed six vessels that are currently under 14-day quarantine near Lamma Island after crew members on board tested positive for the virus.

The alleged vessels are CMA CGM Rossini, MSC Kerry, Vantage, Alisa V, Darya Ganga and Rosa. They arrived in Hong Kong between July 11–17.

Except for Alisa V and Darya Ganga, the quarantined vessels are containerships, according to Lloyd’s List Intelligence data. Among them, Vantage is owned by Greece’s Costamare and chartered to Evergreen.

The Hong Kong Marine Department confirmed the vessel list with Lloyd's List in an email, adding each ship has one crew member tested positive and they were sent to hospital for treatment.

“Since there were crew members being tested positive for COVID-19, as advised by the Port Health Division of the Department of Health, the vessels have to be quarantined for 14 days at the anchorage.” said the department. 

A CMA CMG spokesperson also confirmed that its vessel was under quarantine, adding the seafarer who fell sick earlier had now fully recovered and left the hospital.

A full deep clean was said to have been conducted onboard of the boxship with all remaining crew members tested negative.  

Lloyd’s List has sought comment from the other two liner carriers involved.

Sources said another vessel, believed to be the 36,440 dwt dry bulker Darya Ganga, was also not given clearance to leave the port, after a signing-on crew member was found to be infected on arrival at the airport and prevented from embarkment.

It is unknown why the bulker was not allowed to leave. Its owners are understood to have lost a fixture due to the delay.

The vessel came to Hong Kong from Yangjiang in mainland China on July 16 and has been anchored there since.

The latest incidents have also sparked concerns that the restrictions on crew changes in Hong Kong may soon return to the level before the previous relaxation, although there has been no official announcement yet.

Similar worries have been felt in Singapore, another major Asian maritime hub. The Maritime and Port Authority noted a rising number of cases of crew joining their vessels in the city state and testing positive for the coronavirus.

The Singapore Shipping Association has urged that more care must be taken in adhering to protocols or the whole process of crew rotation risks being suspended.

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