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Crew-change issues likely to persist amid travel restrictions

Maritime employers’ group predicts sustained crew-change difficulties this year as governments struggle to contain coronavirus infections

While UN agencies support the easing of travel restrictions on seafarers, various governments pay more attention to local pressure groups, especially voters

CREW changes will remain problematic this year as stringent travel restrictions remain in place aimed at containing the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron coronavirus strain.

The International Maritime Employers’ Council said it has obtained the support of different United Nations agencies, including the International Maritime Organization, for an easing of pandemic-related travel restrictions.

“But dealing with and getting the support of concerned governments, including those in traditional crew change hubs like Singapore, is much more difficult,” said IMEC chief executive officer Francesco Gargiulo. “The situation today is far from healthy and it’s very difficult to repatriate seafarers to the Philippines, India, China and Indonesia because of travel restrictions.”

A case in point is Singapore, which no longer allows polymerase chain reaction tests for coronavirus for seafarers who are returning to their countries. As a result of this policy, the island state can no longer be used as a transit point for returning seafarers, said Mr Gargiulo.

Chinese seafarers also cannot return to their country unless they take direct flights home after which they are subjected to a three-week quarantine.

Certain governments have eased their travel restrictions, notably the US, which has lifted most impediments on seafarers. New Zealand and Australia have also relaxed some barriers, Mr Gargiulo said.

However, considerable challenges remained and getting concerned governments to recognise the rising costs to the global supply chain due to travel restrictions on seafarers was very much an uphill climb.

“Governments should realise that the higher costs of shipping goods across the world are eventually being passed on to consumers,” Mr Gargiulo said. “Unfortunately, most governments opt to deal more with internal pressures, notably from local voters, not with external factors even if it comes in the form of lobbying or pressures from large countries, like the US or the UK.

“Hopefully, public opinion will help persuade governments to ease travel curbs, especially if people recognise that seafarers are key to global logistics.”

Seafarers as a voting bloc are often too small to make any difference in countries that maintain stringent travel restrictions, said Mr Gargiulo.

But improvements may take place later in the year as Europe opens up and as infection rates decline, he said.

Meanwhile, the Philippines, which supplies the largest number of seafarers across the world, has tightened its regulations on its citizens at work in ocean-going vessels.

An interagency task force issued a new set of guidelines this week prescribing the “reinforcement of a system in screening possible patients infected with emerging infectious diseases, contact tracing, identification of the mode of exposure to the virus, and implementation of effective quarantine and proper isolation procedures”.

It also extended a “state of calamity” throughout the Philippines until September.

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