Maritime regulations no guarantee against local pandemic restrictions

Oct 15, 2021 by Jake DesVergers

As we push through Year 2 of the COVID-19 pandemic, worldwide travel restrictions continue. On almost a daily basis, new rules are implemented or existing rules are modified with little to no notice. This creates chaos for a crew member traveling home or back to a yacht. It also causes endless problems for itinerary planning, owner’s use, and charters.

As we know, COVID-19 was first reported in December 2019 in Wuhan, China. It has since spread to almost all countries of the world. Around 219 million cases have been reported at the time of going to print, including around 4.5 million deaths.

Several vaccines are now authorized in different countries around the world, and more are gaining official approval on a regular basis. Many countries now require proof of vaccination before entry. For those without vaccination, a negative test taken within a certain time frame is needed. Each country is different and verification should be made before traveling. An excellent source for information on ports can be found at: https://www.waypointports.com/covid-19/

The International Maritime Organization (IMO), the International Labour Organization (ILO) and other authorities at the national level have been pushing to prioritize rapid access to vaccinations for seafarers. There is a major initiative to identify seafarers as essential workers in all countries. While not traditionally identified as seafarers, yacht crew do fall under this occupational title.

According to the International Health Regulations (IHR), countries shall not refuse to grant “free pratique.”  This term means permission to enter a port, embark or disembark, or discharge/load cargo or stores. However, countries may implement the prerequisite of a health inspection before granting entry. If a source of infection or contamination is found on board, actions to implement disinfection, decontamination, denied entry, or other measures can be ordered. Nevertheless, many governments have introduced national and local restrictions, including:

  • Delayed port clearance.
  • Prevention of crew or passengers from embarking or disembarking, including shore leave and crew changes.
  • Prevention of discharging or loading of cargo, stores, fuel, water, food, and supplies.
  • Refusal of port entry (in extreme cases).

Because ships and yachts at sea are a closed environment, a vessel underway for 14 days or more may be considered free from COVID-19. Despite best practice quarantine and testing, any crew changes or visits from shoreside personnel may potentially introduce the virus on board. Crew should therefore remain vigilant for the symptoms of COVID-19 in themselves and others. Such symptoms must be reported immediately to the person responsible for medical care on board.

Under the ILO’s Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), flag states must ensure that all seafarers on ships (and yachts) flying their flag are covered by adequate measures to protect their health. Crew must have access to prompt and adequate medical care while working on board. In addition, port states must ensure that any seafarers on board ships in their territory, who need immediate medical care, are given access to medical facilities.

While not currently in force, it is foreseen that new regulations will be developed to mandate the COVID vaccination, like those for measles, mumps, and diphtheria. It has been observed on many yachts that owners are mandating crew to be vaccinated as a condition of employment. Depending upon the verbiage of a particular seafarer employment agreement (SEA) and the yacht’s flag state, such a requirement may be permissible.

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