The World Health Organization and other United Nations agencies on Friday called on governments to prioritize seafarers and aircrews in their COVID-19 vaccination programs, saying their safe movement is essential to critical goods movement and travel on which the global economy depends for recovery.
“For shipping and air transport to continue to operate safely, the safe cross-border movement of seafarers and aircrew must be facilitated. We reiterate our call upon countries that have not done so to designate seafarers and aircrew as key workers,” says the joint statement, signed by the heads of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the International Labour Organization, the International Maritime Organization, the International Organization for Migration and the World Health Organization (WHO). “Seafarers and aircrew need to be protected through vaccination as soon as possible to facilitate their safe movement across borders.”
At least 53 member states have designated seafarers as key workers, a critical step to exempt them from certain COVID-related travel restrictions so they can travel between their country of residence and ships and be repatriated at the end of their contracts. The crew crisis has lasted a full year, with an estimated 200,000 seafarers still trapped at sea or stuck at home and unable to join ships because of border closures. Crew members have complained about the strain on their mental health and on their finances if they can’t make it to a ship to earn a paycheck.
On Monday, the International Chamber of Shipping warned that lack of access to vaccinations is placing shipping in a “legal minefield” that could impact global trade. The organization said it is concerned vaccinations could become compulsory for work at sea because of reports that some states are insisting all crew be vaccinated as a pre-condition of entering their ports.
Delays into ports caused by unvaccinated crew would open up legal liabilities and costs for ship 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, the ICS said.
Ocean carriers say they will be hard-pressed to comply if governments begin to mandate vaccinations as a pre-condition for entering ports if their workers can’t get access to vaccines. According to the ICS, more than half of the world’s seafarers are from developing countries – most of which can’t afford to compete with the U.S., Europe and other developed regions to secure initial batches of COVID vaccines. Experts say it could take a couple of years to fully vaccinate the rest of the world without a plan for equitable sharing of the medicine.
“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,” Bud Darr, executive vice president of maritime policy and government affairs at Mediterranean Shipping Co., said in the ICS statement. “This is a key issue for shipping but could also have a significant impact across many sectors as international business recovers.”
“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 programs and sufficient supplies of vaccines,” Darr said in a separate post on MSC’s website. “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.”
The ICS also said it is worried some nations are requiring seafarers to take vaccines that aren’t yet on the WHO’s approved list.
More than 80% of global trade by volume moves by ocean transport and there are about 2 million seafarers. Passenger airlines carried about 5.7 billion passengers in 2019 and airfreight represents more than a third of the value of goods shipped by all modes. The total number of licensed aviation professionals, including pilots, air traffic controllers and licensed maintenance technicians, was 887,000 in 2019, according to ICAO. The numbers are lower now because airlines have downsized and terminated tens of thousands of workers to conserve cash during the downturn in travel.
The application of stringent public health rules on aircrews has hindered connectivity and increased operational complexity and cost. COVID is compounding massive ocean shipping delays because many ports have fewer dockworkers available because of social distancing requirements and illness. Many port and industry officials have asked governments to treat longshoremen as essential workers too for vaccination purposes.
The challenges for pilots and airlines are highlighted by the situation in Hong Kong, where arriving aircrews that are domiciled in the city must quarantine for two weeks. That limits the availability of pilots that can fly passenger and cargo aircraft. Cathay Pacific has said its cargo capacity has been cut by 25% because of the rule and FedEx experienced significant cost to relocate crews to San Francisco and deal with delays at its intra-Asia hub.
Pilots on short layovers must test negative on arrival, but are now being held at the airport several hours until COVID test results come back. Pilots who test positive or are suspected of contact with an infected person are taken to large facilities where they are kept under quarantine in groups of people. Many pilots complain the conditions are uncomfortable and could lead to transmission of COVID.
The WHO has recommended, at the present time, against requirements for proof of vaccination for international travel as a condition of entry, as there are still unknowns regarding the efficacy of vaccination in reducing transmission and limited availability of vaccines. The organizations do support the development of an international harmonized framework for digital vaccination certificates to facilitate international travel for seafarers and aircrews.