Shipping industry, unions launch quarantine program to combat Omicron crew crunch

Shipowners, seafarers’ unions and maritime employer groups are establishing their own approved international network of quarantine facilities to ensure seafarers can safely join ships, despite unpredictable changes to government border policies. The move comes as the Omicron variant spurs governments to close their borders to seafarers needing to leave and join ships.

The Crew Enhanced Quarantine International Program (#CrewEQUIP) is a partnership between the International Maritime Employers’ Council (IMEC), the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF). Collectively, the organizations represent more than 80 percent of the global merchant fleet and nearly-one million international seafarers through almost 200 affiliated unions. 

#CrewEQUIP will create a list of trusted hotels available for crew quarantines that are independently reviewed. The program is designed to overcome frequent changes in government border policies affecting international crew by having the highest standards and industry-best protocols in place, ensuring the scheme will continue to safely get crew to vessels even if governments increase their quarantine requirements.

The groups said the program is urgently needed to avoid the shipping industry returning to the worst extremes of the crew change crisis, which saw 400,000 seafarers trapped working aboard vessels beyond their initial contracts in late 2020, with an equivalent number unable to join vessels and earn income.

While a global, permanent system with digital vaccine and testing recognition is still urgently needed, the groups said #CrewEQUIP would be important to have in place in the meantime to support greater levels of crew change. 

The groups welcomed the announcement in December 2021 of a new joint WHO-ILO-industry action group to advance digital ‘yellow cards’ for seafarers and other workers who need to cross borders for their jobs.

Under the #CrewEQUIP scheme, shipping companies and their representatives such as crewing agents and vessel managers are able to sponsor pre-embarkation quarantine facilities for seafarers to be considered for recognition. Facilities must meet #CrewEQUIP’s stringent standards for hygiene, testing integrity and data security. 

A facility must also pass inspections by Lloyd’s Register, the program’s recognized external auditor, to become and remain recognized #CrewEQUIP providers. 

From December 16, shipowners, shipping companies and their representatives will be able to access the online booking portal to nominate pre-embarkation quarantine facilities at crewequip.org.

Guy Platten, Secretary General, International Chamber of Shipping, said that “#CrewEquip will make the quarantine process smoother for both seafarers and shipowners and ensure high standards are upheld.

“However, world leaders need to urgently provide a long-term solution to ensure that seafarers are no longer unduly impacted by ever-changing travel and quarantine restrictions. 

“The reinstatement of harsh travel rules by governments as a knee-jerk response to the Omicron variant is of great concern. Coordinated action must be taken by world leaders to exempt transport workers from travel restrictions and prioritize them for vaccinations and boosters. We do not want to see a return to the peak of the crew change crisis.”

Chairman of International Maritime Employers Council (IMEC), Captain Belal Ahmed, said that “Seafarers have been, and continue to be, severely disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic.  

“Whilst the world has repeatedly gone into lockdown, seafarers have worked tirelessly to keep international trade continuously moving and ultimately to ensure that the world’s population are kept nourished and warm. Yet, despite the important work seafarers undertake, many governments have made the movement of these key workers on and off ships far from easy.

“This new quarantine facility program will give industry more confidence to support the movement of more seafarers more regularly around the world, safe in the knowledge that there is a considerably less risk of Covid-19 being introduced to a vessel if a seafarer has joined via a CrewEquip-approved facility, where the highest standards will prevail.” 

Chair of the ITF Seafarers’ Section, David Heindel, said “A successful crew change needs everything to line up across the port States, transit countries, and the right facilities available in place in the home country of seafarers involved. 

“Currently, even seemingly minor alterations to a government’s border, health or quarantine policies can bring a planned crew change to a halt – often leaving a seafarer with no option but to continue working onboard beyond their initial contracts.” 

Heindel added: “Thorough programs like CrewEQUIP, unions and industry are providing a robust system that reduces at least one of the factors that risk successful crew changes. It’s an important initiative and we encourage all responsible shipowners and employers to get behind.”

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