The international shipping industry is warning that unvaccinated seafarers threaten to tip the global supply chain into deeper crisis as countries introduce vaccine requirements at their borders.
Of the world’s 1.7m seafarers, 900,000 are from developing nations, where vaccines might not be available for all until 2024, according to the International Chamber of Shipping, a trade association.
Guy Platten, secretary-general of ICS, said it had received reports that three ports in China had prevented sailors from disembarking because they had not received a specific Covid-19 vaccine, foreshadowing a potential repeat of last year’s welfare crisis for seafarers and the challenges to rebooting international travel.
“If our workers can’t pass through international borders, this will undoubtedly cause delays and disruptions in the supply chain,” he said. “We’re really scared seafarers will become collateral damage again.”
Last June, 400,000 sailors, who have kept global trade flowing throughout the pandemic, were stranded on ships beyond their contract because of coronavirus-induced restrictions that prevented them from disembarking. Some have been stuck at sea for as long two years as a result of the pandemic.
The situation had improved but with the emergence of new virus variants at the end of 2020, Platten said it “has undoubtedly got worse” and the number stands at about half of the peak.
Although the risk of sailors catching coronavirus is relatively low, industry executives fear that a patchwork of border requirements for Covid-19 vaccinations will reignite chaos.
The World Health Organization has given emergency approval to some coronavirus vaccines but there are no universally accepted jabs. China, for example, loosened border restrictions this week but only for those that have received a Chinese vaccine, while the UAE has required some seafarers to receive a vaccine not on the WHO’s emergency use list to continue working.
Shipping groups lambasted China for causing difficulties, including banning crew changes. “China is a real issue,” said Stamatis Bourboulis, general manager of Euronav Ship Management, part of a Belgian oil tanker group, adding that it refused entry to a sailor needing medical treatment.
The dilemma for shipping liners is they do not want to risk being denied entry to ports because of unvaccinated crew members yet they have no route to secure shots. Employment contracts often require seafarers to get any known vaccination necessary to enter countries the vessel may enter, according to a legal liability document seen by the Financial Times that will be sent to shipowners on Tuesday.
The potential for further supply chain disruption comes as shipping is stretched to its limit by a virus-driven surge in demand for goods amid limited availability of containers.
Seafarers from developed countries may receive coronavirus jabs in national rollouts but supply chains rely on sailors from the Philippines, Indonesia and India, where vaccination will proceed slowly. The industry is lobbying for seafarers to be prioritised but success is not guaranteed.
Bud Darr, head of government policy at the Mediterranean Shipping Company, said the second-largest container shipping group in the world, had ruled out buying jabs privately but was exploring government partnerships, under which some vaccine supply it pays for is destined for the general public.
Executives believe an industry-led solution is needed. They hope the International Maritime Organisation, a UN body responsible for shipping, will secure jabs through Covax, the World Health Organization-backed facility for low- and middle-income countries. Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot vaccine is preferable, as logistics would be easier.
But Vassilios Demetriades, shipping deputy minister of Cyprus, a large flag state that has helped repatriate seafarers during the crisis, pinpoints concerns. “My fear is that toward the second half of the year we will still be in the position of discussing who is responsible for vaccinating seafarers.”
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