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A voice from the maritime community: 'Pay attention to seafarers now or regret it when pandemic shortages bite'

3 April 2020

An Oxfordshire resident with two Nautilus members in her family has written to her MP to press for action on crew relief and repatriation. Sarah Robinson talks to her about her concerns

Kate Nicholls, whose husband and father are both ships' officers, told Nautilus that she was dismayed by the UK government's poor understanding of the work seafarers do – work that is keeping the country going during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.

'They keep talking about the frontline of the supermarkets and the warehouses, but they don't realise that shipping facilitates everything else,' she said. 'They need to think ahead. If they don't take care of the seafarers now, there's going to be a problem a few weeks down the line with the goods not arriving to stock the warehouses.'

Mrs Nicholls's husband and father have found themselves in situations typical of seafarers around the world during the pandemic.

Her father is in lockdown on a ship berthed in the US port of San Diego, unable to go ashore because there are cases of Covid-19 coronavirus onboard. If he is at some point allowed off his vessel, it is uncertain if he will be able to go home, due to a shortage of repatriation flights and a lack of understanding that seafarers are key workers who need to travel to and from their vessels.

containership_off_vietnam_pedersen_torbjorn_2019_nautilus_photo_competition_web_news.jpg
Containership en route. Image: Torbjorn Pedersen

Her husband is currently at home with his young family on a leave period, and was due to join his vessel in Southampton in June. However, he will have to go onboard two weeks early and spend the next fortnight in quarantine in his cabin before he can start work, unless more tests become available to establish whether or not seafarers have Covid-19 before they board.

Mrs Nicholls was motivated to write to her local MP Robert Courts after realising that nothing was being said about shipping in the UK government's daily briefings. 'This is no criticism of my husband's or father's employers, who have been doing their best to do the right thing in the circumstances. I also want to thank everyone at Nautilus for all the support they're giving and providing information you can't get elsewhere. But the government just isn't getting the message, and seems to be working blind.'

There has been more talk of keeping airports and flights going for freight than there has about shipping, she pointed out, which is concerning because it shows how little understanding there is that almost all goods arrive by sea.

'The Merchant Navy has always stepped up in a crisis,' she stressed, 'and an acknowledgement would be nice. Maritime families willingly do our bit by sending our seafarers away, and many of them will be staying away for longer than usual at the moment. It's our nature to be quiet and not moan, but we need the government to remember us and plan ahead.'

The government needs to think ahead and remember us. If they don't take care of the seafarers now, there's going to be a problem

Letter from Kate Nicholls to Robert Courts, Member of Parliament for Witney and West Oxfordshire

Dear Mr Courts,

I am the wife of a Merchant Navy officer, as well as the daughter of a Merchant Navy officer, living in Finstock. I have been alarmed and appalled in recent days by the total lack of reference to seafarers in the midst of the current global crisis. Without seafarers, whose qualifications are very specific and in high demand at all times, there will be no supplies for our supermarkets, or indeed the NHS – indeed there will be very little of anything anywhere since 95% of goods enter the country via ship. We are always a very quiet and hidden community – but one upon which the world relies but does not realise it!

Currently there are a number of concerns which no one seems to be addressing – firstly we have British merchantmen stranded all over the globe (my father included who is aboard a ship currently docked in San Diego) – seafarers are deemed key workers – how do we intend on getting them home? Secondly, in a short time, seafarers currently at sea will need to be relieved by fresh officers and crew – how are we to do this with travel bans in place and a lack of flights? In addition to this I cannot understand how seafarers have not been identified as the first group who needs access to testing once it is more readily available – my husband is currently on leave but cannot rejoin his ship until he knows he is not currently infected?

This problem will come to a terrible head in just a few weeks if someone does not point this out and act – the world is reliant upon the goods seafarers transport and you do not have anywhere near enough of them to continue operating in the current crisis. If you think NHS staff are at a premium then you have no concept of the terrifying reality that the lack of available seafarers will bring with it.

PLEASE, I implore you to look into this – I am very aware the seafarers' union Nautilus is trying to raise this to the highest profile, as is the IMO, but government needs this to be presented to them in the starkest terms and with great urgency.

With all good wishes,

Kate Nicholls

Nautilus members who are concerned or are experiencing difficulties related to the coronavirus outbreak are advised to contact their industrial organiser for assistance. In an emergency members can also contact the Nautilus 24/7 helpline.

More Nautilus assistance and our coronavirus resource hub can be found on our Assistance page.


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