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UK takes lead in push for swifter action on crew changes

On the International Day of the Seafarer, the UK government says it stands ‘ready to work with other governments to ensure safe crew changes can take place and the world’s trade can continue to flow’

Seafarers are among the ‘hidden casualties’ of the coronavirus crisis, says UK government. ‘We owe it to them and their families to ensure their health and wellbeing is safeguarded’

DURING these unprecedented times, a spotlight has rightly been shone on the frontline workers who have kept Britain open and functioning.

And with today being the International Day of the Seafarer, it is important that we ensure the hundreds of thousands of men and women from across the shipping industry who have kept Britain’s supplies flowing into the country throughout the pandemic, share in that recognition – and our gratitude

As one of the first industries to be impacted, the shipping and cruise sectors have been at the forefront of the Covid-19 response. Through this, the sector has worked around the clock to keep supplies coming into the country, moving 95% of the UK’s goods.  They are the people who have to thank for ensuring we have enough food, medicines and essential supplies.

But this has come at a cost. Since the start of the pandemic we have seen many countries shut down their borders.

In normal times we would expect to see around 100,000 seafarers be replaced every month, but widespread travel restrictions are preventing crew changes from taking place. It is now estimated there are more than 1.2m seafarers at sea at any one time and currently 200,000 seafarers due to change over, including an estimated up to 2,000 from the UK.

Many crews have had their contracts extended, but this can’t go on forever and in the last 10 days we have seen calls from trade unions for seafarers to be granted the leave they rightly deserve after working for so many months, non-stop, at sea -  away from their home, their family and their loved ones

The reality is many seafarers have been on board a ship for months, have had no contact with coronavirus, pose no risk and they have now come to the end of their duty and cannot get home. The mental toll this is taking on many is too much and the barriers they are facing to get back to dry land are unacceptable.

We both recognise the importance of safeguarding the mental health and wellbeing of seafarers and we are especially focused now given the extra strains on crews.

To ensure their swift repatriation, regardless of nationality, the Maritime Minister wrote to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), the International Labour Organisation and the World Health Organisation at the start of the outbreak on March 23 pressing that all States follow the UK’s work in repatriating workers regardless of their nationality or employment.

On top of this, throughout these past few months, the UK has remained open for seafarers to come and either stay on vessels, go ashore, take shore leave or be repatriated, abiding by PHE requirements and social distancing.

We have helped repatriate more than 7,000 cruise ship workers in the UK, and the Government will continue to do this where countries are allowing their nationals to return home. We are also urging other countries to follow a similar model.

The international community through the International Maritime Organisation has developed guidelines for how ships’ crew can move safely when changing over.

We know there is still more work to be done on how the UK can facilitate crew changes, but we are taking action. For example, we have exempted seafarers from the requirement to self-isolate when transiting through the UK for crew changes - safeguarding the welfare of these individuals who are vital to keep Britain moving.

The government has taken this issue incredibly seriously and is keen to see a resolution to this issue. We know it is simply not possible to keep extending seafarers contracts as this could have a detrimental impact on their health and well-being and potentially puts the flow of goods at risk.

Seafarers are among the hidden casualties of the covid-19 crisis, invisible to most of us day to day but crucial to the economy and keeping this country moving.

We owe it to them and their families to ensure their health and wellbeing is safeguarded, and that their lives are returned to normal as swiftly as possible.

 We stand ready to work with other governments to ensure safe crew changes can take place and the world’s trade can continue to flow.

Kelly Tolhurst MP is a UK Department for Transport minister responsible for maritime; Bob Sanguinetti is chief executive of the UK Chamber of Shipping

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