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The COVID-19 Pandemic: Health Protection of Seafarers

Maintaining the health of seafarers and protecting them from infection remains a critical priority.

ICS COVID-19 Safety poster

ICS guidance

As soon as the likely scale of the pandemic became clear, ICS moved quickly to develop Guidance for Ship Operators for the Protection of the Health of Seafarers. Initially issued on 5 March 2020, this ICS Guidance was produced in collaboration with WHO, IMO, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and the International Maritime Health Association (IMHA). This comprehensive advice has been distributed throughout the industry free of charge, with a fully updated version issued in May 2020, supported by a series of safety posters for use on board ship which have been translated into several languages. It is testament to the good relationships that ICS enjoys with ILO and WHO that it has been able to develop such thorough guidance so quickly.


Other health challenges

ICS has also had to raise the profile of incidents of port states ignoring their obligations under international regulations by refusing to allow sick or injured seafarers access to medical treatment ashore, including non-COVID related emergencies such as strokes and serious injuries. Another issue which ICS has been trying to resolve is access for seafarers on extended tours of duty to prescriptions for medicines.

Worker on a Ship

Work still needs to be done to ensure a safe shipboard interface with shore-based personnel, such as wearing appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and adhering to the health protocols established on board the ship. This remains a particular problem with respect to marine pilots, who in some ports continue to show an unwillingness to co-operate with requests by ships determined to do everything possible to reduce the risk of infection being introduced on board. Despite the endorsement of the International Maritime Pilots’ Association of these industry recommendations, which have been circulated to port states by IMO and focus on a risk-based approach and the need for communication, engagement with pilots at the local level often remains somewhat difficult.

Another outstanding challenge is establishing global protocols for COVID-19 tests for seafarers. There is still no global consensus on the efficacy of different tests given the high percentage of false negatives (both in the context of crew travel and prior to embarkation on board ship), or the time and place where they should be conducted, or the requirements of local authorities for their use.

The current thinking is that the aviation industry is probably best placed to establish a longer term consensus with respect to testing for crew travel, and ICS has participated in work undertaken by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). However, in conjunction with WHO and the International Maritime Health Association, ICS is working to produce more definitive guidance about the testing that is needed to minimise any risk that seafarers are infected when they join their ship, while also providing confidence to governments with respect to facilitating crew changes.