The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) has warned that the lack of access to vaccines for seafarers is placing shipping in a “legal minefield” while leaving global supply chains vulnerable.
A legal document that ICS will distribute to the global maritime community later this week highlights concerns that vaccinations may soon become a mandatory requirement to work at sea, due to reports that some states are insisting that all crew be vaccinated as a precondition for entering their ports.
However, reports estimate that developing countries will not achieve mass immunization until 2024, with around 90% of people in 67 low-income countries unlikely to be vaccinated by 2021. The ICS estimates that 900,000 of the world’s seafarers – more than half of the global workforce – come from developing countries.
This is creating problems for shipowners, who may be forced to cancel voyages if crew members are not vaccinated. They would risk legal, financial and reputational damage if they sail with unvaccinated crews, who could be denied entry to ports.
Vaccination centers at major international ports are being discussed
Port delays caused by unvaccinated crew would mean legal liabilities and costs for owners, which could not be recovered by charterers.
The uncertainty comes at a crucial time in the role of shipping in the global supply chain during the Covid-19 pandemic.
ICS estimates that shipping will overtake aviation in the race to deliver vaccines worldwide in the second half of 2021, in a distribution campaign estimated to last four years. Shipping is also a vital method for transporting the accompanying personal protective equipment (PPE), the total volume of which is estimated to be six to seven times that of vaccines and refrigeration systems.
Seafarers rank as the most internationalized workforce in the world, crossing borders several times during any given period, with up to 30 nationalities on board at any one time. The ICS legal document notes that vaccination against Covid-19 is likely to be required by most, if not all, states and would therefore reasonably be considered a “necessary” vaccination.
ICS Secretary General Guy Platten said, “Shipping companies are in an impossible position. They are caught between a rock and a hard place, with little or no access to vaccines for their workforce, especially those in developing countries. We are already seeing reports of states requiring proof of Covid-19 vaccination for seafarers. If our workers cannot pass through international borders, this will undoubtedly lead to delays and disruptions in the supply chain. For an industry that is expected to help drive the global vaccination effort, this is totally unacceptable.”
Bud Darr, MSC Group executive vice president of maritime policy and government affairs, expressed concern that the lack of vaccination could become an obstacle to the free movement of seafarers this year.
“The maritime industry has to find creative solutions to the problem. In the short term, this means vaccinating seafarers in their home countries where there are established programs and a sufficient supply of vaccines. In the long term, it means exploring the idea of public-private partnerships. There may even be an opportunity, when the initial need for national allocation is met, for manufacturers to provide vaccines directly to shipowners to allocate/administer to these key workers,” Darr suggested.
ICS is currently exploring all avenues to find a solution. This includes the implementation of vaccination centers in major international ports, as suggested by the Cypriot government. If a solution is not found to provide direct access to vaccines for seafarers, shipowners fear a return to the 2020 crew change crisis, in which 400,000 seafarers were stranded aboard ships around the world due to travel restrictions and international closures.