Few would deny that 2020’s COVID-19 pandemic hit hard and fast. And for thousands of cruise ship travellers, crew members and the shipping industry which delivers 90% of the world’s vital food and goods, the dangers were real and immediate. Just how did the UK respond to the exceptional humanitarian challenges to cement its position as a world class flag bearer for maritime safety?
The issues affecting those at sea when much of the world was closing its doors to any travel and shipping were extensive and complex. When the pandemic escalated in March, there were 19,180 British nationals on cruise ships around the world, some vessels in UK ports had confirmed COVID cases on board and15,527 crew members from 112 nationalities on ships in British waters needed help to get home. Compounding the logistical challenges was the scarcity of flights and charter planes, world time differences and the bureaucracy surrounding international travel such as visas and immigration.
Multi Agency Collaboration
The emerging global humanitarian crisis needed exceptional measures to help people and keep vital shipping moving. It needed the collaboration of government departments, authorities, ship operators, port authorities, aviation and embassies. A specialist crisis support working group was established across Government to co-ordinate the various response teams, with the Department for Transport (DfT) at its core, working closely with colleagues at the Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA) and its UK Ship Register.
The DfT’s ‘Shipping Incidents’ response team brought together senior civil servants with multi-disciplined experience in maritime and aviation, crisis response and operational delivery. It complements the work of the UK Ship Register which is internationally acclaimed to be at the forefront of the highest standards of shipping safety, providing specialist services and support for shipping operators registered with the UK.
Katy Ware, the MCA’s Director of Maritime Services, as well as being the UK’s Permanent Representative to the International Maritime Organisation said:
“We all shared one goal in common which was to act quickly to ensure the welfare of passengers and crew on board the ships, with the additional challenges of lockdown and the need to ensure the continued welfare of our teams. It comes down to one thing only and that’s the safety and welfare of people and we don’t discriminate. It was our humanitarian duty to step up and do what is right.
“Without seafarers, nothing moves in the world and we’ve led the field in our obligation to look after them. The UK was the first to designate seafarers as key workers and we were the first to do mass repatriations, facilitated through our colleagues at the DfT,” she said.
The level of detailed work involved in the response was significant. It included working with operators and foreign governments to secure air lanes and charter flights to repatriate otherwise stranded crew members and foreign nationals. There was also close co-operation with the maritime industry, providing real time access to government support for crew welfare and safety. The work also involved helping to smooth the path for operators so all vessels could dock in ports around the UK to allow crew changeover and ensure continuity of supply.
Specific advice for shipping
The MCA’s Maritime Services, including the UK Ship Register, also took specific steps to help the shipping industry to continue to operate during the pandemic to keep world freight and vital passenger ferries moving.
- Updated and regular marine information notices and guidance
- Certificate extensions to UK registered ships so they could continue to sail
- Relaxation of rules to allow ferries essential for UK island communities to operate with passengers and freight truck drivers could stay in their vehicles during the crossing
- On line seafarer training to keep exams running
- New regulations requiring ship operators to provide customers with COVID-19 safety advice
- Ship safety surveys delegated to trusted international organisations where possible so vessel safety was not compromised when far from UK waters
Statistics and facts
- At the height of the pandemic, there were 13,099 crew across 32 vessels in the UK requiring repatriation. Not a single vessel was turned away from the UK throughout COVID-19 despite several ports operating at maximum capacity.
- On average, each vessel spent 12 weeks in UK ports / waters whilst conducting crew repatriation. Crew members from the top 10 nationalities amounted for 89% of all crew requiring repatriation from the UK.
- Since 29 April 2020, a total of 15,257 seafarers from 112 nationalities have been repatriated from the UK.
- Foreign crews were repatriated back to their home countries when many parts of the world were prohibiting crew changes in their territorial waters. Repatriation flights were low in number and operators struggled to buy seats for foreign crew. UK officials swiftly escalated blockages to Ministers who were able to engage with home countries if required to ensure that they would accept their national citizens as quickly as possible and provide the means for them to do so.
- In total, 48 cruise vessels (11 of which are registered in the UK, 37 registered outside the UK) called into UK ports between March and September for the purposes of crew repatriation and lay-up.
- Cruise ship repatriations: On 18 March, there were 19,180 British Nationals as passengers on 44 cruise ships in various locations around the world. By 23 March, 13,629 had been repatriated and by 17 April a further 22 people were still awaiting repatriation and the whole operation was completed on 23 April.