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Imbalances seen amid crew change crisis

Crew changes are possible and can be made safe but everybody involved needs to step up to their responsibilities for it to work, while the public must be made more aware of the essential role of seafarers in their daily lives. As long as they do not realise how much effort and cost is required to help the consuming world maintain normality, it will be tough get a buy-in from the non-shipping world about the plight of seafarers

The general public needs to be made more aware of the essential role of seafarers, a panel of shipmanagers said at the Capital Link China Shipping Forum. Questions also raised on who is bearing the increased cost of crew changes

THE need to focus on crew welfare and significantly increasing the awareness of the public about the importance of seafarers and the work they do were the headline takeaways from a panel discussion at the Capital Link China Shipping Forum.

But there was also a distinct subtext warning about the dangers of vested interests during the debate on the human element, shipping and the global supply chain effects of the pandemic.

Columbia Shipmanagement president Mark O’Neil said “there are lots of lessons to be learnt” from the coronavirus outbreak and on balance the industry has gained more than it has lost as the business becomes more fit-for-purpose for the future.

“People-focus is going to be the single most important assessment post-coronavirus,” he said.

V.Ships chief executive officer for crew management Allan Falkenberg, while emphasising the importance of drawing the public’s attention to the essential role of seafarers, also suggested that they have yet to see the worst-possible scenario outcomes.

“It will be an eye-opener if people can’t get their essential goods,” he said.

Anglo-Eastern Univan Group chief executive officer Bjorn Hojgaard, sharing his experience as Hong Kong Shipowners Association chairman, said that with the city handling as many as 500 crew changes a day after it became one of the first maritime centres to open up for crew changes, it became clear that unless every country and port also plays a part, it is easy for one port to be overwhelmed, as Hong Kong was.

The city suffered a third wave of coronavirus infections in July that prompted a backlash from the public, who pointed fingers of blame at seafarers doing crew changes as being partially responsible for the resurgence.

Mr Hojgaard especially criticised “piecemeal actions and beggar thy neigbour attitudes, where solving the problem is someone else’s job”.

Mr Falkenberg also flagged the lack of knock-on financial effects on the general public as another factor in the overall crew-change problem. He acknowledged that the shipping industry needs to take responsibility for ensuring compliance, but also pointed out that this entails costs. “Who pays for this cost needs to be discussed going forward,” he said.

For example, Mr Falkenberg said V.Ships is taking precautions such as taking out a whole hotel to quarantine its signing-on crew before they leave the Philippines, at its own cost. Meanwhile, the consumers who make up the general public are not seeing any increase in the cost of getting the products they are used to.

Putting things into perspective, however, BW Fleet Management vice-president and head of global manning Dennis Svane Hansen highlighted issues with the still high number of coronavirus cases in crew source countries India and the Philippines.

With some 3% of joining crew testing positive, he suggested that that crew supply countries have not done enough. “They need to step up and do more to ensure the people they are sending out are safe,” Mr Svane Hansen said.

Chinese crew manning agency Singhai Marine Services managing director Terence Zhao noted that demand for Chinese seafarers had gone up since China allowed crew changes for locals and this was especially critical for vessels either being delivered from or getting work done at shipyards there.

However, he said that owners need to be more proactive in planning for their manning requirements, with some still hoping to get seafarers from their preferred crew source countries on board in China even at the last minute.

“It is very unlikely China will relax restrictions for foreign crew change until at least some time next year,” Mr Zhao said.

“Crew change is possible to do with the standard operating protocols in place now,” concluded Mr Hojgaard. He noted that out of the 18,000 or so crew changes Anglo Eastern has done since April, there has not been a single outbreak on any of its ships.

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