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The COVID-19 Pandemic: Survey and Certification Issues

The ability of flag state authorities to conduct statutory surveys, and for ships (and seafarers) to be issued with required certification to allow them to continue to trade, emerged as a serious issue at the very start of the pandemic.

Due to the early imposition of health restrictions on workers in many Asian ports and repair yards, shipowners have faced serious difficulties in getting non-safety critical yet mandatory work completed, including the installation of ballast water treatment systems as required by the schedule IMO has agreed for the existing fleet under the IMO Ballast Water Management Convention. The situation improved as China partially reopened, but the issue is now a global one.

As well as working with IMO, which has issued useful guidance to flag states, ICS has liaised closely with the International Association of Classification Societies (IACS) whose members conduct statutory surveys on behalf of many flag administrations as well as class surveys required for insurance purposes.

“ICS has produced comprehensive guidance for ship operators on the complex survey and certification issues created by the pandemic, and has worked closely with IMO and IACS to ensure that ships can continue to trade.”

To provide advice on these complex issues to ship operators, ICS published comprehensive guidance in April 2020 on Managing Ship and Seafarer Certificates During the Pandemic. Out of necessity many ships have been

granted extensions and the ability to delay undergoing surveys. However, ICS has emphasised the need for shipowners to liaise closely with their insurers, and stressed that ship operators are not in any way exempt from their obligations with respect to maintaining safety and environmental performance as required by the relevant IMO Conventions. The difficultly, however, is that as the pandemic continues, further flag state extensions may be required beyond what is strictly permitted by the relevant IMO Conventions, the requirements of the IMO Ballast Water Management Convention for existing ships to install new treatment
systems being a case in point. Liaison has also been necessary with the United States Coast Guard, via the Chamber of Shipping of America, due to the separate ballast water regime that applies in the United States.

Although most flag states have continued to allow extensions to the validity of certificates, port states are entitled to refuse to accept these beyond the period of time permitted by the applicable IMO Convention requirements and are legitimately concerned about the reputational risk of allowing potentially substandard ships to trade. The regional PSC authorities, such as those responsible for the Paris and Tokyo Memorandum of Understandings on Port State Control, have so far been sympathetic to the problem and have advised national port states accordingly, despite some reports of isolated problems.

However, because of the postponement of IMO committee meetings, IMO Member States have been unable to agree formally on a sustainable solution, which becomes ever more pressing as the pandemic continues to make the conduct of many statutory surveys and repair work very difficult.