Stay at home shipping

Malcolm Latarche

Malcolm Latarche · 13 March 2020


It is almost impossible to keep track of where the dreaded impacts of coronavirus related actions will strike next.

Shipping events and meetings are falling prey to cancellation or postponement almost on a daily basis with even the IMO shutting up shop at its London HQ today. To date, Sea Japan which this year was being promoted as the biggest ever has been postponed indefinitely, CMA, planned to run from 31 March to 2 April has been postponed until 29 June. So far Posidonia from 1-4 June is still scheduled as is SMM from 8 – 11 September. If the experience of the Chinese lockdown is repeated, these events should be reasonably safe, but things can change quickly.

Exhibition and conference cancellations are regrettable for those that take part in them either as exhibitors, speakers or visitors and delegates but the loss of an event here and there is not the end of the world. What will have more of an impact on shipping is the cancellation or postponement of committee and sub-committee meetings at the IMO. So far five meetings have been cancelled including MEPC 75.

The indefinite postponement of MEPC 75 does mean that there should be far less of the public debate that normally precedes these meetings with different lobby groups pushing one viewpoint of another. On the other hand there are several crucial questions to be resolved and more delay will only lead to more diminution of the IMO’s standing in the eyes of some and more likelihood of states taking unilateral decisions upsetting the level playing field that some shipping bodies seem to favour.

Perhaps there is a good reason for these meetings – and many others such as the annual circus that is the IPCC COP meeting to be permanently ended in their present form and be conducted via video links instead. Doing so would definitely end the negative impact on the climate of hundred or thousands of delegates jetting around the world often for no real result.

We surely must have the technology to do it if we believe that it is possible to control things as complicated as dozens of interacting ships remotely. There are after all only a hundred or so delegates that really have any clout when it comes to making decisions and a majority of those have entrenched positions which are not changed – however much debate there is on any given issue.

As shipping – and many more industries – are forced into a period of stay at home management perhaps our views of what and what is not possible or desirable may change. Ports in China are slowly getting back to some semblance of normality if reports are correct but even if factories there do get back up to speed, the slowdown now will be at the destination end. Italy has stopped all but food shops and pharmacies from opening so demand for other goods will be negligible for the next few weeks at least. If the pattern in the rest of the world follows China, we can expect another two months of disruption and potentially even longer.

What effect will that have on shipping? Denmark for example has apparently said all but essential civil servants will be sent home for two weeks. It's hard to know if that includes immigration officers, port state control inspectors or others with a role to play in shipping. Is someone checking a ballast water sample for compliance or someone looking at the fuel in a ship’s bunker tanks to ensure it meets the 2020 rules essential?

Arguably for a few short weeks it really doesn’t matter but it does show the frailty of enforcement procedures for all the rules that come and go in regard to monitoring our industry. Stay at home shipping cannot happen at the sharp end where goods and people are transferred from land to sea and back again. Nor can it yet happen on the ocean voyages, but it is definitely a possibility for regulators.

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