In an Australian-first, NSW Health will provide COVID-19 vaccinations to a small number of foreign seafarers onboard vessels that transport gas between Australian ports in an effort to reduce the risk of the virus entering the community.
The Maritime Union of Australia welcomed the initiative between NSW Health and NSW Ports, which will cover vessels that regularly visit the Port Botany Bulk Liquids Berth, but said the model must be rolled out nationally to reduce the risk of COVID transmission to waterfront workers.
Sixteen seafarers onboard Singapore-flagged LPG carrier Epic St Agnes, which is on long-term charter to Australian energy giant Origin Energy, received their first vaccination dose yesterday morning while berthed at Port Botany.
The Epic St Agnes operates exclusively on the Australian coast, loading and discharging bulk gas at ports in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, and the Northern Territory.
The initiative follows last month’s COVID outbreak on another LPG carrier chartered by Origin Energy, the Inge Kosan. Testing of crew members on that vessel — conducted after the body of one of the seafarers washed up on a beach in Vanuatu — found 12 of 13 had the virus.
MUA Sydney Deputy Branch Secretary Paul Garrett welcomed the NSW Health initiative, but questioned why it was only taking place on a small number of vessels at the Bulk Liquids Berth.
“This Australian-first effort to vaccinate foreign seafarers that make regular visits to Australian ports is a welcome step to reduce the risk of COVID transmission to waterfront workers, but it needs to be replicated at all ports and terminals,” Mr Garrett said.
“The COVID outbreak on the Inge Kosan last month, which appears to be responsible for the death of one of the seafarers onboard, highlights the significant risk that maritime ports of entry pose as a source of community transmission.
“NSW Health has made the decision that COVID vaccinations for crews onboard gas ships that use the Bulk Liquids Terminal are essential to reduce the risk of community transmission, yet seafarers on container ships berthed just a few hundred metres away are excluded.
“More than a year on from the Ruby Princess debacle, many of the lessons still haven’t been learnt, which is why the union is continuing to fight for COVID testing and vaccinations for all international seafarers arriving in Australian ports.”
MUA National Secretary Paddy Crumlin said there was an urgent need for a nationally-consistent approach to close the gaping holes in Australia’s maritime biosecurity measures.
“Thousands of foreign ships visit Australian each year, with many conducting regular trips or undertaking coastal trade between Australian ports, resulting in a significant risk of COVID transmission into the community through direct contact with waterfront workers,” Mr Crumlin said.
“I wrote to the National Cabinet again last month to warn of the significant public health threat and outline the immediate reforms needed to address this risk.
“Inconsistent and tokenistic measures, such as vaccinations for seafarers at certain ports or terminals but not at others, can’t solve what is a national threat.
“What this initiative from NSW Health does prove is that it is possible to vaccinate foreign seafarers, but those efforts will only be truly effective if they’re done in a coordinated, nationally-consistent way.
“It shouldn’t take COVID outbreaks, such as the recent one on the Inge Kosan, to force Federal, State and Territory Governments to finally take the steps needed to address the risk of COVID transmission at Australian ports.”
International Transport Workers’ Federation Australia Coordinator Ian Bray said the Federal Government needed to do more to protect the wellbeing of seafarers in Australia’s maritime supply chains.
“As well as providing vaccinations for seafarers travelling to Australian ports, there also needs to be COVID testing undertaken of all seafarers arriving from foreign ports,” Mr Bray said.
“Not only would rapid testing allow Australian workers who have come into contact with confirmed cases to be immediately isolated, it would mean appropriate medical care could be provided to seafarers, along with support to prevent further spread of the virus on the vessel.
“Seafarers are responsible for transporting 98 per cent of Australia’s imports and exports, which is why it is so important to address the threat COVID poses to these maritime supply chains.”
Sea News, May 13