Saturday, 13 June 2020

Helping Seafarers: Singapore approves over 4,000 crew change cases for seafarers during COVID-19 period

87 ship crew members fly home to India from Singapore on chartered plane after being stranded at sea
By Aw Cheng Wei, The Straits Times, 13 Jun 2020

Chief engineer Awadhesh Prasad was looking forward to going home to India after his four-month contract with shipping company Executive Ship Management ended.

But the COVID-19 outbreak scuppered his plans as borders were closed, and he and the crew of Crimson Monarch could not disembark from the bulk carrier.

This meant that Mr Prasad, 54, could not return home to Ranchi, capital of the eastern state of Jharkhand, in February as planned.

He ended up continuing on the ship's journey to Canada, Brazil and Australia, among other countries, for about four more months, before his employer found him a way back on a chartered flight.

The bulk carrier has not docked at any port since May 9, when it left Brazil.

"Finally, today, I can go home," he told The Straits Times at Changi Airport Terminal 1's departure hall yesterday.

Mr Prasad was one of 87 ship crew members who boarded a chartered flight to Mumbai yesterday after he disembarked from the Crimson Monarch to a smaller vessel, which took him to Marina South Pier.

The chartered plane had flown 54 crew members from Mumbai to Singapore to replace the departing crew on six ships for their onward journey from the Port of Singapore.

The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) said yesterday that it has approved more than 4,000 cases of crew sign-on and sign-off for over 300 companies and 500 ships since March 27.

Signing-on and signing-off refer to the ship's handover process, when one crew replaces another.

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan raised the issue of seafarers being stranded due to COVID-19 restrictions worldwide on his Facebook page on Tuesday, in response to a Financial Times article.

"Many crew have worked several months beyond their contracts due to recent travel restrictions which bar crew from disembarking to return home," said Mr Khaw.

"This has led to the international shipping industry threatening to cease sailing unless replacement crew can be brought in."

He said this issue could potentially disrupt or clog the global supply chain, given that commercial vessels carry 80 per cent of world trade.

Senior Minister of State for Transport and Health Lam Pin Min said in a Facebook post yesterday that Singapore has been facilitating crew change with a new protocol outlined in the Singapore Crew Change Guidebook.

The guide was developed by the Singapore Shipping Association and the Singapore Maritime Officers' Union, with MPA's support.

MPA chief executive Quah Ley Hoon said: "We have seen a sharp increase in the daily crew change applications since our last Port Marine Circular (on May 22).

"Singapore has a responsibility to facilitate crew change in a safe manner for both the country and the ships, given the ongoing pandemic.

"The (guidebook) sets out a 'safe corridor' which companies can now use consistently and reliably for crew changes."

Getting a flight into India, which has banned air travel, was not easy, said Executive Ship Management managing director S.P. Singh.

"International flights are banned in India... In order to charter a plane, we had to go through a long process to get the relevant permission. The Singapore authorities had been very cooperative."

The back-up plan was to wait for governments to reinstate international flights, which Mr Singh felt was not a viable option.

"The seafarers were having a tough time, not seeing their families," Mr Singh said, adding that the crew's family members in India had been asking the company when their loved ones could come home.

Mr Prasad said he called his wife and daughter, who is in university, every few days to check in.

"They are very understanding of the situation because it is all reported in the news. They kept asking me to take care," he said.

The crew could use high-speed Internet connection to call home, but it was the uncertainty of securing a way home before the pandemic ended that frustrated him.

"It was very difficult, not knowing when I could go home... I was worried for my family," he said.



Singapore's crew-change practices for seafarers hailed as model for other ports
By Fabian Koh, The Sunday Times, 15 Nov 2020

Singapore has managed to normalise crew changes amid the pandemic, even as many countries continue to restrict the rotation of ship crew at their ports.

It is also working with international organisations to accelerate the adoption of safe crew change practices abroad, said the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA).

Over 54,000 crew changes have taken place here since March 27, when Singapore put in place strict domestic measures such as the closure of bars and cinemas.

Crew change has been facilitated for seafarers of all nationalities, from some 3,500 ships of different flags belonging to over 2,900 companies, the MPA added.

The Republic is also back to around 75 per cent of its pre-Covid-19 crew change rate. Between 500 and 600 crew changes now take place daily, compared with 800 before Covid-19 struck.

"MPA is not aware of any seafarer or ship currently stranded in Singapore arising from the difficulty in facilitating crew change here," it told The Sunday Times.

Singapore has managed to resume crew changes by constantly calibrating its procedures, while taking into account the evolving Covid-19 situation, said MPA.

It pointed to the 12 Port Marine Circulars issued to the port and shipping community since March. This has progressively expanded the list of circumstances for which crew change is allowed.

MPA has introduced safeguards that include telemedicine facilities to assess ship crew as fit-to-travel without exposing doctors to on-board risks, and setting up a self-contained facility at Tanjong Pagar Terminal to house rotating crew for up to 72 hours, as the reduced number of flights meant seafarers might not be able to board their ship right away.

Since the launch of this facility on Sept 1, it has been housing more than 100 crew each day.

The MPA also developed a guidebook alongside industry partners detailing a set of procedures to create a "safe corridor" for crew changes, while minimising risk to public health in Singapore.

Experts said Singapore's experience can serve as a reference point for other maritime countries.

Mr Toby Stephens, a partner at global law firm HFW and specialising in maritime risk management, said Singapore's regular updating of procedures has made it the "natural place to undertake crew changes", and that its crew change rate likely places it among the top ports facilitating them.

The International Maritime Organisation has also circulated the guidebook to all member states as a reference, and its secretary-general Kitack Lim hailed the crew change "safe corridor" as a model to address the crew change issue in other ports.

As with travel bubbles and green lane arrangements, experts said the next step to further normalise crew changes would be to establish trust between countries, so they can be confident that facilitating these changes will not create new waves of infections.

Singapore is well-placed to promote these efforts, given the recognition that the risk of signing on a Covid-19-positive crew member here is much lower compared with other ports, said Mr Carl Schou, chief executive and president of Wilhelmsen Ship Management.

The varying standards of quarantine facilities and the authenticity of Covid-19 test results from different countries have been an issue that has cropped up.

Shipping publication TradeWinds reported that Singapore has suspended or banned an unspecified number of companies from carrying out crew change since early July, after MPA noticed that some test results had either been altered or tampered with.

This led to cases of seafarers arriving here for crew change with Covid-19 symptoms, and eventually testing positive for the virus.

To find solutions to such concerns, Singapore has launched a global initiative alongside other governments, the shipping industry and unions such as the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF).

Called the Singapore- Shipping Tripartite Alliance Resilience (SG-Star) Fund, MPA said the initiative will focus on whitelisting safe quarantine and testing facilities in seafaring nations, and trialling digital solutions - akin to the TraceTogether token here.

Shipping news portal Splash247 reported that one project that is under way sees the ITF taking charge of the 14-day isolation of workers, with the use of digitally signed documents to provide transparency to workers' quarantine and Covid-19 testing to create a "safe corridor" between the Philippines and Singapore. Tamper-proof tokens and blockchain technology can be part of the confidence-building measures, it added.

The Singapore Government is backing the auditing process of the facilities, reported Seatrade Maritime News.

Should these programmes succeed, more nations will be keen to link up with such a "safe corridor" for crew change, said experts, although Mr Stephens noted that scaling up of crew changes with best practices in place could be a logistical issue for some countries.

"Aside from the regulations, there is also the question of arranging facilities to house the crew whilst awaiting for transfer, the lack of flights available and the restrictions in their home countries," he said.

Mr Schou agreed, saying: "One growing challenge now is to gain commitment from all stakeholders in the industry such as ship owners, operators and charterers to share the burden of the higher cost associated with crew change".

*  How Singapore has differentiated itself amid Covid-19: Senior Minister of State for Transport and Foreign Affairs Chee Hong Tat
By Toh Ting Wei, The Straits Times, 19 Nov 2020

Singapore knew that facilitating crew change for seafarers stuck at sea could bring about risks such as importing Covid-19 cases, but it decided to go ahead anyway, to do the right thing as a maritime nation, said Senior Minister of State for Transport and Foreign Affairs Chee Hong Tat on Wednesday (Nov 18).

The Republic saw the situation - in which hundreds of thousands of seafarers were turned away by ports globally in the past months - as a humanitarian crisis that also compromised navigational safety and threatened the flow of essential goods.

"We took the position that we must start by doing the right thing, and then work with partners to do things right by putting in place the necessary risk mitigation measures," said Mr Chee.

The Government thus worked with industry players and unions to implement a protocol to facilitate crew change. More than 57,000 crew members of different nationalities from over 3,500 ships have benefited from this since March, added Mr Chee.

This stance to do the right thing is the first of three areas in which the Republic has differentiated itself amid the Covid-19 pandemic, he told an audience of about 300 people at a virtual awards gala dinner organised by the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce.

This, along with standing by tripartite partners, is especially important in times of crisis, for others to retain trust in Singapore, Mr Chee added.

"It is during a crisis that we can see clearly who our true friends are and which countries are reliable and can be counted upon.

"Conversely, it is also an opportunity to know who the fair-weather friends are."

Singapore has also differentiated itself in its commitment to planning long term and investing for the future "when others pursue initiatives for short-term gain", said Mr Chee.

Third, even as "others turn inwards and erect barriers in response to populist pressures", Singapore's goal is to stay open to talent and stay connected to the world. This has created openness and diversity in the society, he said.

"Innovation is most likely to happen at the intersection of different ideas and perspectives, when these come together to create something new," said Mr Chee.

He warned that the development of populist and xenophobic politics would lead to companies relocating to other countries, which would result in more Singaporeans losing their jobs.

Mr Chee also presented awards to winners in four categories yesterday. A wine-picking robot at Changi's DFS, which was the result of a collaboration between Changi Airport Group, Temasek Polytechnic and Softbank Telecom Singapore, was awarded the best technological collaboration.

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