Omicron tearing up freighters can exacerbate shipping issues

By K. Oanh Ha and Ann Koh (Bloomberg) —

Omicron is tearing up cargo ships, raising fears that a rise in cases, coupled with China’s enhanced quarantine requirements for ships, could delay supply chain stabilization for the shipping industry.

Covid outbreaks are hitting ships around the world, with cases increasing ‘exponentially’, says Francesco Gargiulo, CEO of the International Maritime Employers’ Council Ltd., which represents shipping companies. Anglo-Eastern Univan Group, which has an active crew of around 16,000, is seeing infections on five to seven ships a month, up from just one or two a month last year, the company said. Meanwhile, Wilhelmsen Ship Management Ltd. has had infections on four of its ships since January after less than a dozen ships were hit by Covid in the whole of 2021, said Carl Schou, managing director of the ship manager.

“Everyone has had cases on board,” said Mark O’Neil, CEO of Columbia Shipmanagement Ltd., which operates a crew of around 15,000 and has seen a few of its ships shot down. “You will probably see the number of ships around the world affected by omicron increase for sure because it is so contagious. And this despite the measures and precautions taken.”

Although ship managers say the problem has been manageable so far, a sustained rise in cases is adding pressure on supply chains already strained by the pandemic. The ports of Shenzhen in Los Angeles and Rotterdam are facing long lines freighters, while the shortage of workers and drivers adds to the grumbling. The disruption is compounded by tight controls at ports in China, which shows no sign of backing down from its policy of trying to eradicate Covid as the rest of the world decides to live with it.

While cases are mostly mild among the crew, who in most cases must be vaccinated, omicron is spreading rapidly through ships. This often triggers a quarantine of the ship for two weeks, although the length of a ship’s quarantine can vary between shipowners, ports and countries. Wilhelmsen quarantines ships for two weeks in cases where infections have become widespread.

China’s challenges

Chinese ports are particularly difficult, with authorities requiring the entire ship to be quarantined if a single sailor tests positive. Ships calling in China must also be Covid-free for at least three weeks. On top of that, crew changes in China are still nearly impossible for foreign sailors.

China’s tightened Covid-19 quarantine requirements for ships and reduced labor at ports are adding to the delays. It takes a week to 10 days more to deliver iron ore supplies in China compared to before the pandemic, charterers and owners say.

According to project data44, average shipping delays from China to the West Coast of the United States increased by 114% in 2021 compared to the previous year. The route to Europe recorded an increase of 172%.

“The supply chain disruption persists,” said Bjorn Hojgaard, CEO of Anglo-Eastern and Chairman of the Hong Kong Shipowners Association. “China has done a good job of preventing deaths and serious epidemics, but the reality is that the international supply chain is suffering. There is no work around it.

China’s zero-Covid approach could prove increasingly problematic at ports as more countries switch to living with the virus. Major maritime nations, including India, the Philippines and parts of Europe, are being hit by a sharp rise in infections, according to a report released this month by the Declaration coalition of shipowners and charterers. of Neptune.

Bigger, faster

“This has caused a large number of crews to become infected, resulting in postponement of crew changes and increased local restrictions, further complicating crew changes,” he said. it finds.

Last month, around 100 Anglo-Eastern seafarers tested positive just before embarkation, a jump from just a handful in the last quarter of 2021, Hojgaard said.

One positive point: the vaccinations of sailors are increasing, which helps to keep the symptoms mild. Many ship charters now require sailors aboard ships carrying their cargo to be vaccinated, Schou told Wilhelmsen, who also requires sailors to be vaccinated.

“Fortunately, no crew needed to be hospitalized and it was just flu-like symptoms that cleared up within a few days,” he said. “As the world opens up, we will have much bigger and much faster omicron waves.”

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