This is what happens when a ship carrying coronavirus-infected crew arrives in Australia
Confirmation that a total of seven crew members from the iron ore bulk carrier Vega Dream anchored off Port Hedland have COVID-19 has put the focus on the adequacy of pandemic safety measures for international shipping entering Australian ports.
It is the second ship in two weeks to arrive at Port Hedland carrying the virus.
The manganese carrier Patricia Oldendorff left Western Australia waters on the weekend after the majority of its infected crew recovered from the virus.
While the WA Government is adamant there is no risk to local communities from foreign seafarers with COVID-19, the maritime union believes there are huge risks.
What are the rules for international shipping arriving at Australian ports?
Before ships arrive in port, it is a legal requirement they report all crew who have been or are currently ill through the Maritime Arrivals Reporting System.
According to Australian Government’s COVID-19 information for the marine industry, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (DAWE) is in contact with international vessels to ensure they understand their reporting requirements.
If a crew member is ill, they have to isolate on the ship in a single cabin until they are given further directions by Australian authorities.
Department biosecurity officers then work with state or territory health departments to assess the COVID-19 risk on board.
A DAWE biosecurity officer will first go on the ship to screen for COVID-19 among the crew, using the Traveller with Illness Checklist.
They may also talk to the ship’s doctor.
After seeking advice from a state or territory health department human biosecurity officer, the DAWE biosecurity officer will tell the vessel master what to do next.
A state or territory human biosecurity officer will decide whether the sick crew is tested for COVID-19 on the ship or transferred to a hospital or other medical centre.
What must crew on board ships in Australian ports do to limit any potential infection spread?
The Australian Government has several requirements for crew on board a ship, even if they have been at sea for more than 14 days.
Firstly, it says all crew should remain on board while the vessel is berthed in Australia.
Crews are allowed to “undertake vessel functions” at the port but should wear a face mask and other PPE while working.
They must also limit any interactions with marine pilots, government officers and anyone else who is not a member of the crew.
When those non-crew members are on board the ship, the crew should wear PPE in shared public spaces.
The Government also stipulates crew members who are not performing essential work should self-quarantine when non-crew members are on the ship.
“Restrict non-essential interactions with non-crew,” it says.
They are also urged to practice good hygiene and increase the routine cleaning and disinfection of surfaces that are frequently touched, such as handrails, guard rails and shared navigation equipment, to help control the spread of infection.
The crew have to notify Australian authorities if they develop a fever or other COVID-19 symptoms.
What about Australians working at ports and on international ships?
Australian marine industry staff, such as stevedores or marine pilots, must avoid all contact with sick crew members.
“If unwell crew are essential to the vessel, there must be a prior agreement on how staff can avoid close contact,” the Government COVID-19 information says.
To reduce the risk of catching the virus when they are on a ship, Australian workers are also told to practice good hygiene, wash their hands, stay more than 1.5 metres from other people and avoid touching their face with unwashed or gloved hands.
Marine pilots have to wear PPE while on board any vessel “due to the length of time marine pilots can be on board and the extended close contact they may have with crew”.
What are the risks in the current system?
When the Vega Dream arrived on Friday a marine pilot went on board to guide it into port for loading, while a cargo surveyor also went on board.
After potential infection was detected, they were placed in self-quarantine.
WA Health Minister Roger Cook said neither was in close contact with any of the crew that has tested positive to COVID-19 and neither have symptoms of the virus.
“There is no risk, I repeat, there is no risk to the Port Hedland community,” Mr Cook told reporters at a press conference on Monday.
“I stress, over the last six months we’ve had many thousands of vessels come into Western Australian ports, many hundreds of thousands of crew members come through on those vessels and we’ve had these two incidences now.
“Obviously it’s disappointing but we are well-versed and well-drilled in terms of making sure we keep the West Australian public safe.”
But the Maritime Union of Australia believes there are huge holes in the system.
The union’s national president Christy Cain points to another ship which recently docked at Fremantle port with a suspected case.
Mr Cain said six wharfies went on the ship and then went home and out — one to a buck’s night and one to a family birthday party — before health authorities told them to go home and self-isolate.
The crew member turned out not to have the virus, but Mr Cain said if he had been positive the wharfies could have quickly spread the disease into the community.
“It’s very easy for it to come ashore,” he said.
“The risk is massive, but no one seems to be listening.”
But the State Government said Federal and State protocols in place prevented interaction between crew and dockside workers.
Are the rules being tightened?
The crews of the Vega Dream and the Patricia Oldendorff both boarded in Manila.
The WA Government has said it would work with the Federal Government to ask the Philippines Government to tighten controls around crew changes.
Mr Cook also said the Chamber of Minerals and Energy of WA had informed him resources companies were taking action themselves.
“They have received word from the major mining companies that they’ll no longer be using Manila-based crews,” he said.
“Crews will have to be sourced from other jurisdictions.”
But the CME said the proposed action had not yet been finalised.
“CME is aware some member companies are talking to their shipping agents about the possibility of sourcing shipping crews from ports other than Manilla. The logistics of these potential changes are still being investigated,” a spokesperson for the Chamber said.
The MUA’s Mr Cain said there needed to be stringent checks on crews when they joined vessels overseas.
“If they do that, they’ll find a lot more COVID-19,” he said.
If that could not be done, he said ships should be made to wait offshore until they had been in isolation for 14 days.
“No vessel can come in.”
But the WA Government said that would be disastrous.
“It would be a major economic handbrake if ships at Fremantle and at the Pilbara had to sit offshore for a week before they were allowed in,” a spokesperson said.