MUA calls for vaccination of all foreign seafarers calling at Australian ports

In an effort to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spreading into the community, the New South Wales Ministry of Health plans to vaccinate a small number of foreign seafarers onboard vessels that transport gas between Australian ports.

The Maritime Union of Australia welcomed the initiative between NSW Health and NSW Ports, which will cover vessels that regularly visit the Port Botany Bulk Liquids Berth. However, the union insists the model must be rolled out nationally to reduce the risk of COVID transmission to waterfront workers.

Sixteen seafarers onboard Singapore-flagged LPG carrier Epic St Agnes, which is on long-term charter to Australian energy giant Origin Energy, received their first vaccination dose on May 12 while berthed at Port Botany.

The Epic St Agnes operates exclusively on the Australian coast, loading and discharging bulk gas at ports in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, and the Northern Territory.

The initiative follows last month’s COVID outbreak on another LPG carrier chartered by Origin Energy, the Inge Kosan. Testing of crew members on that vessel — conducted after the body of one of the seafarers washed up on a beach in Vanuatu — found 12 of 13 had the virus, according to MUA.

“This Australian-first effort to vaccinate foreign seafarers that make regular visits to Australian ports is a welcome step to reduce the risk of COVID transmission to waterfront workers, but it needs to be replicated at all ports and terminals,” MUA Sydney Deputy Branch Secretary Paul Garrett said.

“The COVID outbreak on the Inge Kosan last month, which appears to be responsible for the death of one of the seafarers onboard, highlights the significant risk that maritime ports of entry pose as a source of
community transmission.

He questioned why seafarers on container ships, berthed just a few hundred meters away were excluded from the measure, adding that
all international seafarers arriving in Australian ports should be vaccinated.

MUA National Secretary Paddy Crumlin agrees that there is an urgent need for a nationally-consistent approach to close the holes in Australia’s maritime biosecurity measures.

“Inconsistent and tokenistic measures, such as vaccinations for seafarers at certain ports or terminals but not at others, can’t solve what is a national threat,” he added.

“What this initiative from NSW Health does prove is that it is possible to vaccinate foreign seafarers, but those efforts will only be truly effective if they’re done in a coordinated, nationally-consistent way.

“It shouldn’t take COVID outbreaks, such as the recent one on the Inge Kosan, to force Federal, State and Territory Governments to finally take the steps needed to address the risk of COVID transmission at Australian ports.”

As well as providing vaccinations for seafarers travelling to Australian ports, there also needs to be COVID testing undertaken of all seafarers arriving from foreign ports, according to International Transport Workers’ Federation Australia Coordinator Ian Bray.

“Not only would rapid testing allow Australian workers who have come into contact with confirmed cases to be immediately isolated, it would mean appropriate medical care could be provided to seafarers, along with support to prevent further spread of the virus on the vessel,” he noted.

The move is being announced amid sporadic vaccination efforts among IMO nations despite industry-wide calls for seafarers to be prioritized for inoculation in order to keep global trade running. Countries like the U.S., Russia, Poland and the Netherlands are starting to vaccinate seafarers, but, these efforts need to be scaled up.

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To that end, Intermanager, the shipmanagers’ trade group, has reportedly agreed to buy 1 million of Johnson & Johnson vaccines for seafarers.

To comply with international law, the organization needs a recognized governmental body to place and receive the vaccine order, and so far, it has been unsuccessful in finding one willing to make the purchase.

InterManager President Mark O’Neil is calling on all bodies to help make this a reality in order to have seafarers vaccinated quickly, and help resolve the crew change crisis while reducing the risk of infections among these vulnerable groups of workers.

Commenting on the situation at the end of April, InterManager said it was frustrated by the lack of progress and slow pace of international efforts to obtain much-needed Covid-19 vaccines to protect more than one and a half million seafarers. Hence, the organization announced it was going to source the vaccinate separately.

“Global organizations have talked their way round in circles and still we are no further forward in providing a vaccination programme for seafarers who are vital in ensuring that world trade and aid continues to be delivered. InterManager says enough is enough – realising that the international efforts have not been sufficient in recognising the importance of the vaccination of seafarers we will now work on sourcing vaccinations separately through legitimate channels to enable our members to vaccinate their seafarers as soon as possible and to support others within the maritime industry to do the same,” O’Neil said at the time.