The coronavirus outbreak in China — one of the world’s largest seafaring nations — has led to serious challenges for crew management.

Among measures to control the deadly virus, Beijing has imposed heavy travel restrictions on many Chinese cities, creating problems for seafarers returning to ports after the lunar new year holiday.

“There is a lot of hassle," a Chinese shipmanager said. "Changing of crews has become a real problem ... we are trying to delay the changing as much as possible. We also need to ensure those who get onboard are healthy.”

The Chinese Ministry of Transport has also asked shipping companies not to allow seafarers to go onshore when their vessels call in China, “except when under extraordinary circumstances”.

'Control the situation'

“Shipping firms need to enhance crew management and protect their sailors from the epidemic while ensuring the supply of necessities onboard,” the Ministry of Transport said in a government order, published by state media People’s Daily last week.

“Maritime authorities need to step up to monitoring efforts and control the situation.”

TradeWinds has learned there are some worries over the supply of seafarers as a result of measures to control the spread of the virus in China.

According to the International Chamber of Shipping, China is the largest supplier of officers and second-largest of ratings.

A Taiwanese manager said his company would temporarily avoid using Chinese seafarers.

“It’s a big trouble ... and what makes the things worse is all [this] is happening during the holiday period,” the manager said. “There is a major impact on our crew management.”

Initial evidence suggests the novel strain of the coronavirus that is causing global concern can incubate in the body for up to 14 days before its flu-like symptoms emerge. It is contagious during the incubation period.

“We are following the World Health Organization guidelines on general quarantine procedure onboard," the Chinese manager said. "But the issue is, it’s hard to tell someone with flu from someone actually infected.

“We will have to find onshore medical facilities that have experts on the virus to confirm the case ... that can be a headache.”

Advice to vessels

Major shipmanagement companies have told TradeWinds they have issued detailed advice to vessels and are monitoring the situation as the epidemic develops.

Wilhelmsen Ship Management said it is continuously updating its safety bulletins, which it has been sending out to vessels since last week, and has issued specific advice to ships.

The Norway-based manager is avoiding changing crew at Chinese ports and has suspended shore leave in the country.

It has also advised its vessels not to pick up any provisions in any Chinese ports and to especially avoid products such as raw meat, eggs and milk.

Meanwhile, Wilhelmsen said it is monitoring its crew, who will be immediately quarantined if a person shows symptoms.

"Port calls have been suspended in some ports in China and vessels have been directed to anchorage," a spokesperson for Wilhelmsen told TradeWinds.

"For now, we are procuring masks and other disinfectant items to have onboard."

Likewise, Singapore-based Thome Ship Management said that it is following both World Health Organization guidelines and national public health authority advisories "as a minimum", and is taking advice from protection and indemnity advisories and flag states.

Little effect so far

Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement chief executive Ian Beveridge said the group does not have a centralised response to the coronavirus situation, but has not seen much change so far.

"Our offices in China are obviously directly affected, where the holiday period has now been extended," he said. "Our office in Hong Kong is still functioning normally.

"So far, none of our staff ashore and onboard have been infected. Travel in China is severely affected, which has resulted in meetings being cancelled both in China and in Hong Kong and Singapore."

He added that no Schulte-managed vessels have been delayed, nor has the group experienced any commercial impacts from the situation.

Likewise, Wallem Group has not yet experienced any operational or commercial effects from the epidemic, according to company chief executive Frank Coles.

“As with any crisis, Wallem uses its contingency planning strategy and adapts the plan to the events," he told TradeWinds.

"Wallem has advised its staff on strict hygiene behaviours, restricted travel to China, and is closely monitoring the situation as reported in the media and government sources."

A spokesman for Inchcape Shipping Services — a global network of port agents — said the company is following local and global guidelines and "monitoring the situation accordingly", but declined to comment further.