As Australia and New Zealand battle against new COVID waves, ATPI calls for seafarers to be vaccinated to maintain vital supply chains

30 July, 2021

For long periods of the COVID-19 pandemic Australia and New Zealand have worked hard to keep infections out of their nations. A strong stance, quarantine requirements on arrivals and limited inbound capacity has meant that this has been a successful strategy, but the new more-virulent Delta variant of the basis has broken through those barriers and brought the return of lockdown restrictions.

In Australia, while Victoria and South Australia have both came out of lockdowns after containing small outbreaks, New South Wales has extended its own stay-at-home orders for a further four weeks meaning prolonged restrictions in Sydney, where more than 2,500 people have been infected in the worst outbreak to date for the country's largest city.

You cannot say life has been normal over the last 18 months, but for long periods Australians and New Zealanders have enjoyed a relatively free lifestyle. The recent outbreaks have been a shock to the system and highlighted a slow vaccination programme delivery that has left the country's citizens under more threat from COVID. Former Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull this week described Australia's vaccine rollout as "the biggest failure of public administration I can recall".

The disruption in Sydney is projected to last at least a few more months, according to local experts, and as has been seen across other parts of the world, transmission and isolation to avoid infection can have a significant impact on vital supply chains.

Specialist travel management company ATPI says one way to avoid future shortages of goods and services is to deem seafarers as essential workers and offered priority vaccination against COVID-19 as part of global efforts to fight the pandemic.

Seafarers can be considered as a unique population with its own needs and constraints and requirements for international travel. To protect the health of seafarers, passengers and the general public, and to minimise disruptions to trade and global supply chains, vaccination of seafarers is considered highly preferable.

While industry bodies are working with authorities at national, regional and international levels to prioritise rapid access to vaccinations for seafarers as key workers in all countries, they currently do not have any priority status.

As the Western Australia Government deals with two COVID emergencies linked to arriving vessels and National Cabinet is set to discuss calls for restrictions on shipping from Indonesia, ATPI regional managing director Pacific and Africa Peter Muller said seafarers "must be vaccinated as a globally coordinated priority," to avoid future shortages of goods and services, and to protect their wellbeing.

In Western Australia, 10 of 14 crew aboard the BBC California cargo ship have tested positive for COVID-19 and may have to be treated in Perth hospitals. The crew members may have contracted the virus in Indonesia, where they berthed at three ports before leaving in mid-Jul-2021.

Health authorities are also testing workers who may have come into contact with seafarers from the container ship Mattina, after nine of its crew tested positive for the virus when it arrived in New Zealand. There have been other emergencies related to infected seafarers, particularly at the iron ore export hub of Port Hedland, where more than 60,000 seafarers travel through the port every year.

"Just as the mining sector and mining workers are considered essential in Australia, so shipping and seafarers are essential workers in maintaining global supply chains," says Mr Muller.

ATPI's call for greater coordination for seafarer vaccinations follows over a year of working in partnership with industry associations to support seafarers in returning home, or to continue to travel to ships. Activity has included delivering specially chartered flights for use by multiple shipping companies to allow crew rotations to take place in some of the world's busiest port cities during times of crisis and closed borders.

"The shipping industry has a track record of collaboration, such as the Neptune Declaration, and has worked hard with global shipping and healthcare organisations to ensure ships and their crew can continue to sail as safely as possible," says Mr Muller.

However, the meaningful steps required to see positive change - such as a seafarer vaccination programme - requires the support of globally aligned governments, and not just individual flag states.

"The efforts we see in Cyprus, the Netherlands, the Philippines and India to vaccinate seafarers are the result of the shipping industry cooperating with the governments to make vaccination programmes happen. Seafarers are also being vaccinated in the United States," explains Mr Muller.

"The same should happen in Australia. As an island nation dependant on shipping for a vast amount of its imported goods, it is essential that seafarers are protected so that they do not endanger the wider Australian population," he recommends.

"It is essential that industry institutions take charge and enhance the endeavours that have already happened with some flag states. Put simply, the industry has to get a grip and accelerate efforts to see seafarers vaccinated," he adds.