Seafarers themselves are on the front line of this Covid-19 crisis, playing a critical role in keeping the world economy moving.

Last week, International Maritime Organization (IMO) secretary general Kitack Lim asked the United Nations system agencies to support the IMO in its request to governments to declare seafarers, port personnel and other maritime workers as key personnel.

The efforts being made by maritime workers have ensured that seaborne trade continue to flow. However, the challenges are growing due to various restrictions being introduced.

Ella Hagell, divisional director at Britannia P&I, discussed the practical problems in getting personnel on and off ships, issues with crews stuck in transit, and the challenges facing those requiring medical treatment or repatriation

“The effect of the pandemic is being felt across the industry as whole and across the club. A few my colleagues have found difficulty in finding surveys to attend on board,” said Hagell. There have been examples of surveys being carried out remotely.

"We had instances of stevedores refusing to work cargo until a doctor could be found to come onboard to confirm that the vessel was all clear of the virus,” she added.

Getting people off ships has been equally challenging. The club had a case where the owner was left with four armed guards onboard due to the charterers having repudiated the charter; getting them ashore was no easy matter.

In terms of the crew claims that Britannia P&I handles, Hagell said that one of the biggest concerns at the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic was being unable to get sick and injured crew off ships in an emergency situation – not just those suffering from Covid-19.

“Our problem is dealing with the emergency cases. There has been some delay in getting permission for them to disembark or getting a doctor onboard but in our experience we have managed to get that permission in a serious medical emergency.”

Hagell conceded that this process is taking longer than usual, due to the pressures on the local authorities. But, clearly, this situation is a cause for concern.

“Assuming that we get them off, the problems escalate from there. You have delays in getting access to the hospital for updates so we have difficulty to find out what is happening and what is wrong with them. The problems really begin once they are fit to travel because … there are extreme restrictions on movement. We have got crews stuck all over the world who are fit to travel again and cannot go anywhere.

“It is a serious problem – until those flight restrictions are lifted they are stuck… This is not just for the crew who have been disembarked sick or injured. It is also for regular on-signers and off-signers that are obliged to be quarantined ashore.”

She added: “Some members are trying to reposition vessels to pick them up but that does not always solve the problem because you still have to disembark them somewhere else – you are just moving the problem in some sense.”

Hagell noted that a number of the major shipowners have decided to suspend crew changes for this reason. “If you have a happy, healthy crew onboard it might be the most sensible option to keep theme there if you can.”

Once seafarers have returned home, the problems continue. “We have seen delays the continuation of their treatment and delays in getting disability assessment – this might be because of the internal transport restrictions but also because of a lot of them are being advised not to go to hospital except in cases of an emergency due the risk of catching something else."

Hagell concluded: This is obviously having a tremendous impact on the seafarers themselves and their mental and physical welfare.”

At the end of March, the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) and the International Association of Ports and Harbours (IAPH) also joined forces to call for swift action to support global supply chains from the impact of Covid-19.

In an open letter to G20 leaders, the two organisations said: “In this time of global crisis, it is more important than ever to keep supply chains open and maritime trade and transport moving. Leadership from the G20 in calling for a coordinated approach by governments, working in conjunction with the IMO, World Heath Organisation (WHO), and other relevant agencies is therefore of the utmost importance.”

Guy Platten, secretary general of ICS, added: “We need nations, led by the G20, to work together to provide coordinated rather than knee-jerk restrictions to protect us all from Covid-19. We need pragmatic, science-based and harmonised guidance for the global maritime sector that ensures the safe delivery of the goods that we are all going to rely upon in the coming months.”

Patrick Verhoeven, managing director of the IAPH, commented that ports must remain fully operational with all their regular services in place to guarantee complete functionality of supply chains.