TWENTY-ONE seafarers onboard a ship anchored off the coast of Newcastle are receiving support from health and maritime authorities after 11 crewmembers tested positive for COVID-19.

MV Spirit of Ho-Ping, a Panama-registered NYK-managed bulk carrier, departed from the Philippines on 16 August but has not docked in Australia. DCN understands only one crewmember was vaccinated.

An NSW Health spokesperson told DCN there had been no increases in COVID-19 case numbers as of Thursday 16 September, and none of the crew required medical transfer from the vessel.

“Yesterday, a highly-trained retrieval medicine specialist boarded the ship by helicopter and assessed all of the 21 crew on board, including the 11 people known to be confirmed cases of COVID-19,” the spokesperson said.

“Hunter New England LHD will continue to provide medical care and public health advice to those on board, and liaise with the Port Authority of NSW, Australian Maritime Safety Authority, NSW Police, Commonwealth Department of Agriculture Water and the Environment and others.”

A spokesperson from AMSA said the collaborative effort between their organisation and health authorities would help secure the safety of the seafarers.

“New South Wales health authorities are currently managing a COVID-19 situation onboard the Panama-flagged Spirit of Ho-Ping,” they said.

“AMSA is working closely with the relevant New South Wales authorities to ensure the health and safety of the 21 crewmembers.”

With relevant departments responding to the outbreak, NSW International Transport Workers’ Federation inspector Dan Crumlin told DCN further tests carried out by NSW Health should soon determine whether the seafarers are infectious.

“If the serology tests find crew are in the infectious period, the vessel should be as close as possible to medical support, preferably alongside in port or at a safe anchorage, as their condition could deteriorate rapidly,” Mr Crumlin said.

In the meantime, Ports Australia is maintaining communication with Port of Newcastle and Port Authority of New South Wales, who are supporting NSW Health as they work to ensure the safety of the seafarers and prevent impact on the community and local trade.

A spokesperson from Ports Australia told DCN crew welfare is at the centre of the operation.

“First and foremost, we must prioritise the wellbeing of the seafarers aboard the Spirit of Ho-Ping,” they said.

“That means monitoring the conditions of affected crew members, reserving the ability to treat them onboard or ashore if necessary, and ensuring the vessel has the provisions and monitoring equipment they need.”

Importance of seafarer vaccination

Ports Australia said the situation on the Spirit of Ho-Ping highlights the importance of vaccinating seafarers, particularly as they continue to deliver goods amidst the pandemic.

“The nature of a seafarer’s work exposes them to parts of the world currently overwhelmed by the virus, meaning we will continue to have vessels turning up at Australian ports with COVID-19 cases on board, and the Spirit of Ho-Ping is another example proving that,” the spokesperson said.

“Ports Australia believes all levels of government have a role to play in raising the vaccination rates of international seafarers who service our nation to protect their health and wellbeing and that of our ability to move goods across our borders.”

According to ITF’s Mr Crumlin, the situation is an opportunity for NSW authorities to implement practices exemplified by other states to secure the best possible outcome for the crew of the Spirit of Ho-Ping and other seafarers impacted by COVID-19. 

“NSW Health should continue to work with all parties and ensure the crew’s welfare is at the forefront of decision making with a clear direction around testing, treating and vaccinating international seafarers, adopting world’s best practices similar to those announced in Queensland a week or two ago.”

Mr Crumlin said the magnitude of the work and challenges faced by seafarers during the pandemic warrants their recognition as essential workers.

“Frontline workers have been the heroes of this pandemic, and none more so than the international seafarers who carry 98% of Australian trade by sea.

“They have been stuck on board for long periods of time, away from their families, no shore leave, and limited communications to talk to loved ones.

“Seafarers should be recognised as key workers and there should be a coordinated state and federal strategy for access to all seafarers to receive vaccinations when they visit port.”

The breadth of the conversation surrounding situation onboard the Spirit of Ho-Ping indicates there are still shortcomings in the wider understanding of seafarers’ current circumstances and the willingness to respond.

Mission to Seafarers Newcastle chaplain Matthew Couch said maritime welfare organisations are working to promote wider recognition of these challenges, particularly as the current situation off the cost of New South Wales echoes another incident which occurred earlier in the year.

He said MTS had yesterday facilitated the vaccination of seafarers from Inge Kosan, which is the same ship that lost one of its crewmembers in April, whose body washed up on a beach in Vanuatu.

“The ship had 13 crew, it lost one at sea, and 11 of the remaining 12 were infected in April,” Mr Couch said.

“This is a case study of how that all happened, but wouldn’t have happened if we were vaccinating seafarers last year, rather than now.

“It’s pretty simple. We’ve had plenty of time to get this together.”

Mr Couch said MTS is willing, ready, and able to take a more active role in the vaccination of seafarers as soon as they can “convince people it’s the right thing to do”.

“It’s not just that it’s the right thing to do because they’re fellow humans; it’s in our national interest,” he said.

“It’s right on every level.”