January 13 ------ The latest numbers from the Neptune Declaration on Crew Change appear to show good news for seafarers: The number of mariners working on an extended contract has fallen to its lowest level since at least May 2021, a major improvement in a key metric for morale. Out of a sample of 90,000 crewmembers from 10 leading shipmanagement firms, only about 3.7 percent were working on board past the expiry of their contract. An even smaller fraction - just 0.4 percent - were on board past the MLC maximum of 11 months.
While this is positive news, it does not necessarily mean that the shipping community has put the crew change crisis behind for good. The latest report is based on data from December 15, and it does not reflect the latest impact of the highly-transmissible Omicron variant of COVID-19. The shipmanagers who contributed to the report noted that Omicron has caused many countries to review their COVID-19 protocols and reimpose movement restrictions, resulting in the return of crew change challenges. In addition, COVID restrictions have been reimposed in many seafaring nations in Asia and Europe as infection rates are on the rise. "While the January numbers seem encouraging, we must remain cautious as they do not reveal the full impact of omicron as the new infection wave is not yet over. To avoid reigniting the crew-change crisis and reversing these recent positive trends, it is vital that the industry and governments make all efforts to ensure the effect on crew-changes of omicron remain minimal,” said Kasper Søgaard, Managing Director, Head of Institutional Strategy and Development, Global Maritime Forum.
Seafarer vaccination rates are also showing a remarkably positive trend. Between December and January, the share of seafarers who were vaccinated jumped by 10 percentage points, bringing the total to about 60 percent. This is a significant improvement from last August, when just 15 percent of seafarers had received a full course. However, some seafarer nationalities still show an elevated degree of vaccine hesitancy, particularly among Eastern European and Russian crewmembers, the corresponding ship managers reported. There are also still vaccine availability issues in some regions, and access to booster shots is reportedly a challenge.
For seafarers, getting vaccinated might not be enough to ensure freedom of movement. Two years into the pandemic, there is still no globally-accepted standard for vaccination, and different countries have different rules for which vaccines they will accept. Some nations also put time limits on the validity of a course of vaccination, restricting access for seafarers who had their shots more than six months ago, according to the report.