THE Port of Tauranga was the site of a COVID scare after it was reported that vessel Rio de la Plata had previously been boarded by an Australian pilot who had tested positive to COVID-19.

As the vessel approached the port on 3 August, Maritime NZ alerted the port that the ship had previously been boarded by the COVID-positive pilot. Maritime NZ subsequently cleared the vessel for pilot boarding and it was tied up on the evening of 4 August, according to a statement from the Port of Tauranga.

At about 2100 that evening, Customs NZ unexpectedly shut down operations on the ship and the local Public Health Unit advised the port that the pilot and the stevedores unloading the ship should go home, isolate and await further instructions.

And on the following morning government agencies told the port the workers did not in fact need to isolate and work on the ship could resume.

“Our primary concern is for the port workers, including our pilots, who have been put in a very stressful situation,” the port said in a statement.

“Victim blaming and abuse is not helpful.”

The port said the container terminal was operating at 50% capacity until the stevedores are formally advised they can return to work.

“We have not received any official information from the Ministry of Health but have been advised informally that 109 negative tests have been received so far in this round of urgent testing,” the port said.

“Almost all of our own frontline staff are vaccinated, but there are dozens of companies that work on the port.”

The port said it has vaccination programs in place and all its frontline port workers must have their first dose by 30 September.

“Vaccination is another useful tool in the fight against COVID-19, but we will continue to follow all our other precautions that have worked for the past 18 months: frequent cleaning, use of PPE, physical distancing from ship’s crew and regular COVID-19 testing,” the port said.

“These precautions were followed by all workers who boarded the Rio de la Plata last week. Port of Tauranga treats all vessels as if they have Covid-19 on board.”

The Maritime Union of New Zealand said the COVID scare on the Rio de la Plata is a reminder that strict processes at ports are essential to protect the country from exposure.

MUNZ national secretary Craig Harrison said there had been some confusion about the status of the vessel and its crew, and communication may have to be improved, but any false alarms were preferable to exposure to COVID.

Mr Harrison said an issue that is not being addressed is improved testing and vaccination of overseas crews visiting ports, which was not happening.

“Vaccination of crews was a weak point in international efforts to control COVID and this was where attention needed to be focussed,” he said.