Ebola and the Shipping Industry
What does the current Ebola outbreak mean for the shipping industry, especially for those operating or chartering ships calling at ports in West Africa?
The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has been declared an international health emergency by the World Health Organisation (WHO). The current epidemic is centred in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone but there have been individual cases in Nigeria and Senegal as well. Up to now, more than 3,800 people have died of the virus, while at least 8,000 people are reported to have been infected. Medical professionals believe that the number of cases is underreported and there are substantive concerns that the hundreds of patients per week presenting with symptoms of the virus will grow into thousands per week before the end of October if the numerical trends persist. This week, a Spanish auxiliary nurse has become the first person in the current outbreak to have contracted the virus outside of Africa after treating two victims of Ebola in Madrid.
Further compounding the human tragedy, the Ebola outbreak is devastating the economies of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone: none of them has the financial, medical or infrastructural resources to contend with the scale of the epidemic.
Ebola – The implications for ships calling at ports in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
Risk to crews
The consequences of contracting Ebola are grave for anyone, especially when the right medical facilities are not available to provide immediate patient care. However, to date airborne transmission has not been documented. This means that subject to the application of common sense precautions – essentially, the avoidance of direct physical contact with anyone ashore – the risks to crew of contracting Ebola is extremely low.
In practical terms this means:
Avoid making crew changes through Liberia, Guinea or Sierra Leone; although with the restrictions on commercial flights in and out of these countries it would be very difficult anyway to organise crew changes through their ports.
Prohibiting shore-leave: it is obvious that taking shore-leave increases the risk of crew coming into direct physical contact with an Ebola-infected person, or indirectly through contact with surfaces and materials contaminated with infected bodily fluids.
Outside of other emergencies and legal requirements, in the circumstances, there can be no reasonable rational for considering making crew changes through Ebola-affected countries or permitting shore-leave there. Both would be to invite risk where there need not be any.
Strictly control access to the vessel by shore visitors. Controlling access to the vessel is not just a matter of avoiding stowaways or other unauthorised persons coming aboard, it is also being sure that authorised visitors do not present a health risk to the crew. Prevention is the best way to deal with Ebola.
Procedures for increasing the control of access to a vessel should be set out in its security plan (Ship Security Plan – SSP), in conformance with the ISPS Code obligations. However, common sense dictates keeping accommodation ladders raised; regular deck patrols; effective night-time lighting; as well as keeping doors and access points locked when not in use.
Next ports of call after Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone
Restrictions that P&I Clubs have reported thus far, include:(2)
Argentina’s River Plate area: Pilots are not allowed to board any vessels arriving from Ebola affected ports until further notice.
Brazil: All vessels calling in Brazil must produce a Maritime Declaration of Health 12 hours before arrival in port.
United States of America: All vessels arriving from Ebola-affected ports must inform the relevant port authority 15 days prior to arrival if any person on board has any communicable disease (including Ebola).
South Africa: Increased inspections of – and greater restrictions on – vessels arriving from affected areas, generally targeted at stowaways and crew.
In mid-September, Malta refused entry to the “WESTERN COPENHAGEN”, a Hong Kong-registered bulk carrier, which was on route from Guinea to Ukraine. The Master had requested medical assistance for a Filipino crew member that had become ill and was presenting with some of the symptoms associated with Ebola. The vessel was turned away from Malta because the country does not have the facilities to treat Ebola patients, and sailed to Sicily where the crewman was accepted ashore for treatment.
As the length of time increases over which national and foreign governments, health organisations and NGO’s battle to bring Ebola under control, it is likely that more countries will prohibit the entry of ships coming directly from Ebola-affected ports, or at least impose more stringent screening regimes on ships before permitting port entry. There will be operational implications as well as contractual issues.
The outbreak also impinges on the obligations of owners and charterers under their contracts when trading in Ebola-affected areas. Standard charterparties do not contain clauses specifically drafted to deal with Ebola-affected ports. Whilst fever and epidemic clauses can be drafted, where they are absent from a charterparty there are a number of issues that can arise.(3)
Time charters: The general rule is that the Master is obliged to follow charterers’ orders – and a charterer is to pay hire continuously through the charter period. Whilst the Safe Port warranty generally relates to the safety of the vessel and cargo, an unacceptable risk to crew may render the port unsafe. Nevertheless, the presence locally of Ebola may not render a port unsafe per se, particularly if there is to be no direct physical contact between the crew and persons at the port.
Voyage charters: Charterers’ primary obligation is to nominate a port which is prospectively safe. If the port becomes unsafe after nomination, owners and charterers may wish to check whether the charterparty has a Liberty clause which may be invoked.
Delay/Off-hire: Delays at both Ebola-affected ports – and for vessels arriving at other ports after calling at Ebola-affected ports – are to be expected. Unless the charterparty has express terms dealing with Delay or Force Majeure, owners and charterers should consider agreeing how to best deal with this problem. There is a risk that a vessel could be placed off hire if it is quarantined prior to being allowed entry to a port. Therefore, Quarantine and Free Pratique clauses should be examined as they may affect both the commencement of Laytime and the giving of Notices of Readiness.
It is essential for any owner, operator or manager with vessels trading to ports in Ebola-affected countries (or even passing by them), to have a plan of action for certain contingencies:
- A crew member presents with symptoms indicative of Ebola while at sea after a port call in an Ebola-affected country – or while alongside in an Ebola-affected country.
- A supernumerary presents with symptoms indicative of Ebola while at sea after a port call in an Ebola-affected country – or while alongside in an Ebola-affected country.
- A vessel needs to deviate to a port in an Ebola-affected country in emergency circumstances (Port of Refuge, major medical incident not Ebola-related).
- A vessel is quarantined at a port following a previous call at port in an Ebola-affected country because one or more crew suspected of having contracted Ebola.
Plans should identify the roles, and delineate the responsibilities of, those responding to any such eventualities, as well as establishing:
- Points of contact for relevant national/local authorities (health, port, diplomatic, law enforcement)
- Identification of correspondents, enablers and subject matter experts (locally and internationally)
- Priorities for allocating resources and applying them
They might readily be drafted on the basis of a What if? Therefore… exercise.
The Ebola situation in West Africa is highly mutable and the shipping industry should expect it to be having an impact on operations deep into 2015. Fortunately, the risks to crews of contracting Ebola are extremely small if common sense precautions are taken. Unfortunately, contractual disputes between owners, charterers, shippers and receivers are an almost inevitable consequence of the growing restrictions on ships trading to and from ports in Ebola-affected countries.
Further guidance on Ebola for ships, owners, operators and managers from the World Health Organization (WHO) can be found on the WHO website: WHO EVD Guidance Travel Transport Risk 14.1 (pdf)
This paper is intended as a general summary of issues in the stated field. It is not a substitute for authoritative advice on a specific matter. It is provided for information only and free of charge. Every reasonable effort has been made to make it accurate and up to date but no responsibility for its accuracy or correctness, or for any consequences of reliance on it, is assumed by Gray Page.