26 Aug VP Jon Cartu Wrote – Concerns international seafarers came to shore for medical treatm…
The Maritime Union says international seafarers have been coming ashore for medical treatment without first being tested for Covid-19, prompting calls for crew to be tested for the virus before a vessel arrives in New Zealand.
Ports of Auckland and the Maritime Union have expressed concerns about the Covid-19 risk international seafarers pose to New Zealand’s maritime border and the processes in place to safely handle medical emergencies involving ship crew.
Maritime Union’s Auckland secretary Russell Mayn said there had been four or five occasions over the past seven or eight weeks at the Ports of Auckland where international seafarers came ashore to receive medical treatment without being tested for Covid-19.
The Government is yet to establish the cause of a resurgence of Covid-19 in New Zealand following more than 100 days of no community transmission. At the centre of the outbreak is a south Auckland coolstore, which receives containers from Ports of Auckland.
In response to the mystery outbreak the Government ordered high-risk workers at Ports of Auckland and Port of Tauranga, along with managed isolation and quarantine facility staff, to be tested for Covid-19 by August 20.
A Ports of Auckland spokesman said it understood that regular testing for port workers would soon be in place but it wanted further investigation into the feasibility of testing ship crew prior to arrival at a New Zealand port.
The spokesman said the port did not have details of the medical cases that came ashore because those were arranged by shipping agents and Auckland Regional Public Health Service.
“We understand and agree that in cases of emergency we have a moral obligation to provide assistance to seafarers, however, we were concerned that there were insufficient safeguards in place when transferring them ashore.”
Ports of Auckland has been restricting shore leave since early February and has been asking the Government for testing of higher risk port staff since April, the spokesman said.
It had raised concerns with officials and was satisfied that the rules around shore leave and the processes for handling medical emergencies among ship crews were now fit for purpose, he said.
Customs minister Jenny Salesa is responsible for border management oversight. A spokeswoman for Salesa said questions should be directed to either the Ministry or Minister of Health.
A Ministry of Health spokeswoman said it did not hold information about individual seafarers who required medical treatment, including where and when they came ashore, because it was a matter for the local medical officer of health or health protection officer to arrange.
Each relevant district health board may have the numbers, she said.
”Based on the current data, there have been no cases of Covid-19 in any workers coming in through the maritime border.”
Auckland Regional Public Health Service said it did not hold the information and directed Stuff to the Ministry of Health.
On July 1 a new Maritime Border Order came into effect. It says a person may disembark a ship to undertake an essential task such as loading and unloading cargo or undertaking maintenance on the ship.
A person can also leave a ship if it is an emergency or to access medical services.
Mayn said the union also wanted improved protocols around transferring seafarers who needed medical treatment.
In each medical emergency case he was aware of, seafarers were transferred for medical treatment in a private car organised by a shipping agent.
Anyone who did need to leave the vessel in New Zealand should be required to undergo a Covid-19 test first, he said.
“It just seems to be common sense.”
The union had been lobbying for mandatory testing at the first port of call for international seafarers, or even better, at the port of origin, he said.
“Whilst that may not be foolproof it would certainly give the best indication possible that the crew coming from overseas is Covid free.”
The union also wanted the Government to stop international vessels from ferrying domestic cargo from port to port in New Zealand, he said.
“They shouldn’t be port-hopping moving domestic cargo in New Zealand, that should be left to New Zealand coastal shipping where our seafarers are in a bubble that is Covid-free.
Union members were currently working on vessels which housed international crew that had not been tested for Covid-19 and that was cause for concern, he said.
Stevedores were required to walk up gangways to vessels, and in some cases board ships and enter holds to lash or unlash containers and plug or unplug refrigerated containers, he said.
Union members were doing their best to wear the necessary personal protection equipment and take safety precautions when interacting with international vessels, he said.
However, he had concerns for casual port workers who were less likely to speak out when put in an unsafe situation due to a risk of not being offered more work, he said.
“They’re extremely vulnerable for health and safety.”