A significant step has been made to protect seafarers’ health and safety amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim’s endorsement of a series of recommendations designed to ensure seafarers can access medical care ashore quickly and safely.
Receiving medical care ashore can be a matter of life or death for seafarers who fall ill while working on ships. But since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been cases of seafarers being denied permission to go ashore, even when they presented medical issues that were life-threatening but not related to COVID-19, including a stroke.
The Recommendations for port and coastal States on the prompt disembarkation of seafarers for medical care ashore during the COVID-19 pandemic seek to address this issue. Developed by a broad cross section of global industry associations in consultative status with IMO, they provide guidance to the relevant authorities in port and coastal States so they can ensure seafarers’ access to medical care. This covers any medical situation but also when a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19 is involved.
The recommendations include advice on monitoring for signs or symptoms of COVID-19 prior to disembarkation, isolation of suspected or confirmed cases, the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), and minimizing the exposure to infrastructures and personnel in the port during disembarkation and transfer to a medical facility.
IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim urged Member States to implement the recommendations and share them with the relevant authorities. “Seafarers are at the heart of everything IMO does. In the darkest hours of the pandemic, they have been selflessly delivering the goods we all need. But their own health and wellbeing are as important as that of anyone else. Now is time for governments around the world to deliver for seafarers, by ensuring they can access medical care without delay, whenever they need it”, Lim said.
Under the International Labour Organization’s Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), port States must ensure that seafarers on board ships in their territory who are in need of immediate medical care are given access to medical facilities on shore. The obligation to render assistance to seafarers in distress, including medical assistance, is also enshrined in the IMO Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR), Salvage and Facilitation conventions, as well as in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Prompt and efficient disembarkation of seafarers to receive medical care ashore is essential not only for the seafarers’ health, but also for the maintenance of the global supply chain. Due to COVID-related restrictions, ships have faced difficulties arranging for such disembarkation, causing delays or disruptions to their operations and potential danger to the seafarers themselves.
The Recommendations for port and coastal States on the prompt disembarkation of seafarers for medical care ashore during the COVID-19 pandemic were developed by ICS, IAPH, BIMCO, IFSMA, INTERTANKO, P&I Clubs, CLIA, INTERCARGO, InterManager, IPTA, IMCA, INTERFERRY, FONASBA, ITF and WSC.
Since May, IMO has been urging its Member States to implement the Recommended framework of protocols for ensuring safe ship crew changes and travel during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, which were also drawn up by industry associations. These protocols specifically ask governments to designate seafarers as key workers and to do everything possible to allow crew changes to happen. Implementing these protocols remains vital, as hundreds of thousands of seafarers remain stranded on ships, having worked for several months beyond their original contracts, or, conversely, stuck onshore, unable to join ships and work.