International seafarers pose little risk to the public and port access restrictions imposed by some states are not in line with national recommendations, an industry lobby claims.
- The Port of Townsville will relax COVID-19 restrictions as of Friday, the ABC understands
- Shipping Australia wants to see the rules eased even further
- A support group for seafarers says shore leave is vital for the wellbeing of sailors, many of whom are operating under extreme stress
On April 9 the National Cabinet agreed that states and territories should implement a “consistent and immediate exemption” to COVID-19 rules for ships other than cruise liners.
The Cabinet agreed vessels arriving within 14 days of their last international port of call could dock, as long as crew remained aboard.
But last month Maritime Safety Queensland ruled that docking be delayed until 14 days had passed since a ship left its last foreign port.
The ruling meant ships arriving in Australia from Asian ports less than ten days away were anchored offshore for days, which peak body Shipping Australia said led to significant extra costs.
“Any time a ship is delayed — and we’ve had ships delayed outside the Port of Townsville for three days, at least — it’s around $25,000 a day just in crew costs,” chief executive Rod Nairn said.
Mr Nairn said the delay in implementing National Cabinet decisions by the State Government was frustrating for the merchant marine sector.
From Friday, however, ships arriving at the Port of Townsville, northern Australia’s largest container and automotive port, will be allowed to berth and unload cargo upon arrival, the ABC understands.
“The decision was made by National Cabinet three weeks ago to try and align rules with regard to ships arriving in Australia and crew changes taking place,” Mr Nairn said.
Ships arriving from China and South Korea will still have to allow 14 days to pass before berthing in Queensland ports.
Mr Nairn said concerns about the reappearance of seafarers on the streets of port cities were unfounded.
“There’s been not one seafarer from a commercial cargo ship that’s visited Australia [who has] been found to be COVID positive,” he said.
“And this COVID situation’s been running for more than two months now.
“The argument we’ve put forward to Maritime Safety Queensland is that cargo shipping crews are probably the safest people in the world.”
Shipping Australia is calling for ships arriving from Korean and Chinese ports to be exempted from the 14-day rule.
Tough time for seafarers
The Townsville branch of support group Mission to Seafarers has been assisting visiting crew members during the coronavirus outbreak with care packages, and by delivering personal items purchased from its centre to berth security gates.
Manager Graham Miller said the pandemic had been especially hard on crews who spent months at a time away from their families.
“The problem really is the sense of isolation felt by the working seafarers, many of whom are now stuck on board a vessel with no end in sight to their long contracts, and with no way to get back to their home countries,” he said.
“With airports locked down, country borders closed and complicated travel restrictions, seafarers who are ill or who have deaths in the family are finding they cannot be repatriated home.”
Mr Miller said shore leave was essential for managing mental health and he was pleased restrictions had been eased for those engaged in the vital supply of cargo.
“In past weeks overseas shipping companies warned masters of vessels to restrict or deny crew access to any shore leave, for fear of bringing the virus back onto the ship,” he said.
“We have real problems developing with morale, fatigue and with physical and mental well-being of these men and women who keep our country going.”
Maritime Safety Queensland has been contacted for comment.