The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) has warned that lack of access to vaccinations for seafarers is placing shipping in a legal minefield, while leaving global supply chains vulnerable.

ICS suggested that Covid-19 vaccinations could soon become a compulsory requirement for work at sea, following reports that some states are insisting all crew be vaccinated as a pre-condition of entering their ports.

Issues centre on vaccination rollout programmes in developing nations, where more than half of world’s 900,000 seafarers call home. According to analysis from the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), most poor countries will not achieve mass Covid-19 immunisation until at least 2024 and some may never get there.

ICS said this is creating a perfect storm for shipowners, who may be forced to cancel voyages if crewmembers are not vaccinated. They would risk legal, financial and reputational damage by sailing with unvaccinated crews, who could be denied entry to ports.

Delays into ports caused by unvaccinated crew would open up legal liabilities and costs for owners, which would not be recoverable from charterers.

Furthermore, while owners would be able to address the need for seafarer vaccines in new contracts, owners attempting to change existing contracts or asking crew to receive a specific vaccine requested by a port could open themselves up to legal liabilities.

ICS said the uncertainty comes at a crucial moment in the ongoing role of shipping in the global supply chain during the Covid-19 pandemic. Shipping is expected to overtake aviation in the race to deliver vaccines around the world in the second half of 2021, in a distribution drive that is estimated to take four years.

Shipping is also a vital method of transportation for accompanying personal protective equipment (PPE), whose estimated total volume will be 6-7 times that of the vaccine and refrigeration systems.

ICS secretary-general Guy Platten said: “Shipping companies are in an impossible position. They are stuck between a rock and a hard place, with little or no access to vaccines for their workforce, particularly from developing countries.

“We’re already seeing reports of states requiring proof of Covid-19 vaccination for seafarers. If our workers cannot pass through international borders, this will undoubtedly cause delays and disruptions in the supply chain. For a sector expected to help drive the global vaccination effort, this is totally unacceptable.

“This is a key issue for shipping but could also have a significant impact across many sectors as international business recovers.”

Bud Darr, executive vice president, maritime policy and government affairs at MSC Group, added: “The shipping industry needs to find creative solutions to the problem. In the short term this means getting seafarers vaccinations in their countries where there are established programmes and sufficient supplies of vaccines. In the long term it’s about exploring the idea of public-private partnerships. There may even be the opportunity, when the initial surge of need is met for national allocation, for manufacturers to provide vaccinations directly to shipowners to allocate/administer to these key workers.”

ICS said that it is currently exploring all avenues to find a solution, including the implementation of vaccination hubs across key international ports, as suggested by the Cypriot government. If a solution to provide direct access of vaccines to seafarers is not found, shipowners fear a return to the crew change crisis of 2020 that saw 400,000 seafarers stranded on ships across the world due to travel restrictions and international lockdowns.

“Many think we’re in a vaccination sprint. The reality is we’re at the start of an ultra-marathon, and seafarers will be key in getting across the finish line. We need to keep them safe and for governments to play their part by ensuring that vaccines for seafarers have been approved by WHO for emergency use,” Platten added.

“There are currently more than 50 vaccines each at different stages of testing and approval and only some of these have been recognised by WHO as suitable for emergency use. Yet some states are imposing vaccines for seafarers that are not on the WHO list of vaccines for emergency use. If we’re to maintain internationalised workforces, this needs to change immediately.”

ICS has issued its report, Coronavirus (COVID-19): Legal, Liability and Insurance Issues arising from Vaccination of Seafarers, which can be downloaded for free. It provides guidance on best employment practice to protect against the aforementioned liabilities, along with information on insurance cover under the shipowner’s standard (P&I) insurance.