SINGAPORE has been working closely with shipping partners, seafarer unions and shipping companies to facilitate crew change in a safe manner such as through the use of "safe corridors"; and the Maritime Port Authority (MPA) has approved nearly 3,000 cases of crew changes since March 27, said Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan in a Facebook post on Tuesday.
"We have gone further and started facilitating crew changes in larger numbers via chartered flights," he added. The first such flight took place in Changi Airport last Saturday; there will be three more such chartered flights for shipping crew this week, he said.
Wilhelmsen Ships Agency, which provides full agency, husbandry and protective agency services worldwide, helped coordinate the first full crew change on Saturday, performed in line with the new crew change protocol put together by the Singapore Crew Change Working Group (SCWG).
Rajesh Unni, founder and CEO of ship management company, the Synergy Group, said the group has been "desperately" trying to conduct crew changes since the outbreak of Covid-19.
"By enabling a full complement of Sri Lankan and Indian seafarers to join and disembark this Genco Shipping & Trading bulk carrier, through this well-planned and controlled changeover, they have shown the world that crew changeovers for seafarers of other nationalities are possible even during a pandemic," he said.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) on June 8 issued a call for urgent and coordinated action to "release" the 150,000 to 200,000 seafarers trapped onboard ships around the world.
The ILO noted that many of those onboard completed their tours of duty more than four months ago with contracts extended exceptionally because of the crisis. Many are now reported to be experiencing mental health issues and physical exhaustion, which is reducing their ability to safely carry out their duties.
The Financial Timesreported earlier this week that up to 400,000 crew are stranded either at sea or at home by travel restrictions because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
It also noted that one German-owned tanker refused to sail unless replacement crew could be brought in; the fear is that others will follow after June 16, when emergency extensions to the labour agreements governing seafarer's contracts expire.
But Raymon Krishnan, president of The Logistics and Supply Chain Management Society said while some seafarers may go on strike, that would be a very small percentage.
"We have not had anything like that happen in the last 60-70 years as far as I am aware, and everyone believes that the situation will be resolved sooner rather than later now that it is in the limelight. There are concerted efforts being made by stakeholders, and more economies are starting to open up."
Singapore Shipping Association (SSA) executive director Michael Poon, who also led the working group that developed the guide, agreed. "From Asia and Singapore's perspective, everyone is trying to make sure we can facilitate and accomodate crew changes in the most safe manner," he said.
There are two levels of complexities involved - ensuring that the incoming crew tested and is Covid-19-free; and on the second level, cooperating with the aviation community to source for flights.
The new crew change protocols published in the Covid-19 Singapore Crew Change Guidebook were developed in accordance with International Chamber of Shipping's Framework of Crew Change Protocol and MPA's Port Marine Circular 26 of 2020.
"The guide book, first of all, gives a lot more clarity as to what are the specific requirements for you to do a crew change in the most responsible and safe manner to safeguard both incoming and outgoing crew; and also reduce any risk of exposure for the local community," said Mr Poon.
It also gives airlines a more reliable forecast of passenger flow. "With this forecast, the airlines can at least plan and offer their flight routes. They can then justify this to the receiving airport," he said.
The guidebook is issued by MPA, the Singapore Shipping Association and the Singapore Maritime Officers' Union, in cooperation with the International Maritime Employers' Council Ltd and the World Shipping Council.