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‘Take immediate steps’: COVID cases on ships pose trade risk

Lucy Dean
·2-min read
Marine traffic of a busy harbour. Nautical vessels cruising close to each other at different directions in the port.
(Image: Getty).

The Australian Government has been urged to act quickly to address COVID-19 cases on trade ships, amid warnings severe outbreaks could cripple maritime supply chains.

The warning from the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) comes as a second member of the Rio Tinto-chartered MV Aquagenie has tested positive to COVID-19.

The iron ore bulk carrier, which was stranded off the West Australian Pilbara coast for nearly a month, has now set sail for Manila while the infected Captain undergoes treatment at Royal Perth Hospital.

The ship had pushed state and federal authorities into a stalemate over whose responsibility it was to address the ship, with WA authorities claiming that while they would assist in treating COVID cases, the broader issue of where to send the vessel was a federal one.

However, federal authorities said that the ship would be managed by the state.

The MUA said this case highlights the need for seafarers to undergo stricter testing and improve vaccination and crew change arrangements, or risk a damaged maritime supply chain.

“As an island nation, Australia is reliant on shipping to transport our exports to the world and maintain supplies of essential goods,” MUA national secretary Paddy Crumlin said.

“This COVID outbreak on a ship undertaking Australian trade highlights the need for the Federal Government to take immediate steps to secure the nation’s supply chains by addressing deficiencies in quarantine and crew change arrangements.”

Crumlin said Australia also needs to address the crew change “crisis” which has left some seafarers stuck on ships for more than a year.

“By implementing best-practice quarantine arrangements, Australia could facilitate the safe replacement of maritime crews, ensuring the seafarers joining the vessels that carry Australia’s goods are COVID-free,” Crumlin said.

“The current system, where COVID hotspots like the Philippines are left to facilitate the overwhelming majority of crew changes, poses a significant threat to Australia’s economic security.”

Additionally, Crumlin said the problem has been exacerbated by large companies like BHP and Rio Tinto choosing to replace Australian vessels with “flag-of-convenience ships” which are registered in tax havens and crewed by seafarers paid as little as $2 an hour.

“A simple step to secure their supply chains would be to once again crew their vessels with highly-skilled Australian seafarers, which would ensure they remained COVID free and commodity exports could reliably continue,” Crumlin said.

Health Minister Roger Cook last year suggested a ban on Manila-based crews on iron ore carriers as cases on the ships ballooned. However, the idea was swiftly rejected as being logistically impossible.

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Image: Yahoo Finance