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Health and safety

Nautilus FAQs on Covid-19 Coronavirus

9 June 2020

This Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) article sets out some general guidance for UK-based members, mostly relying on the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 (MLC) and Seafarers' Employment Agreement (SEA). However, note that there will be differences between flag states' laws. Covid-19 response is a fast-changing situation and Nautilus does not guarantee the veracity of the information. Members are urged to seek specialist legal advice wherever possible.

For specific advice based on your own individual circumstances and SEA please contact your union official.

Tuesday June 9 - extensive updates to document including new questions 3 and 4 on mandatory quarantines, and question 19 on mandatory face masks on public transport

1. I am due to join my ship in a Covid-19 hotspot, can I refuse?

Refusal to join a ship would be considered misconduct or gross misconduct under many SEAs even with such a looming public health concern.  Check your SEA and any applicable Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), to see if there are any relevant clauses.

Employers demanding travel to a hotspot could be in contravention of national government travel advice, risk corporate travel insurance cover and fall foul of employee health and safety responsibilities under the MLC. Ensure your employer is aware of your concerns.

It may be that, in extreme cases, refusing to join a ship in a hotspot would be reasonable on health and safety grounds. However, a bad employer may still wish to treat this as a disciplinary issue.

Affected members should contact Nautilus immediately, which can then put their concerns to their employer.

2. Can I refuse to join my ship if, as part of the rotation, it is going into a Covid-19 hotspot?

Under the MLC ship owners have a duty to protect the health and safety of seafarers.

However, it may be harder to justify refusing to join a ship that will visit a hot spot as part of its rotation, as the risk of contracting the virus could be considered minimal if there is no contact with the local population.

3. Will I be required to enter quarantine when I off-sign from a ship in a non UK port??

ITF/ICS guidance recommends that governments exempt seafarers from any mandatory quarantine periods that may be enforced for other travellers.

Shipping companies should supply seafarers with detailed information on what to expect during the repatriation process including any restrictions that they will be expected to comply with.

Members should contact their industrial organiser immediately if they have any concerns.

4. Do I need to undertake mandatory 14-day quarantine on arrival in the UK?


A mandatory two-week quarantine period will be enforced from 8 June for the majority of arrivals in the UK

A list of occupational groups in England that will be exempted from the quarantine requirement can be seen on the gov.uk website, and includes seafarers. This page also sets out what documentation a person falling into each category should have in their possession to confirm their status. 

Seafarers and masters, maritime pilots, fishers and inspectors and surveyors of ships may be asked to produce one of the following:

  • a Seafarers Identification Document (SID)
  • their joining papers
  • a seafarer's discharge book (Continuous Certificate of Discharge)
  • a basic training certificate
  • a deceleration from the registered owners of the vessel that they are a crew member.

The exemption from quarantine applies when a seafarer arrives in the UK to join a ship, leaves their ship in the UK to be repatriated or returns to the UK having been discharged from their ship overseas. Seafarers are still expected to comply with any restrictions that are in place in the country that they are residing including the requirement to self-isolate if they have coronavirus symptoms.

As of 8 June returning persons will be required to complete an online form giving details of their journey to the UK, how they can be contacted and where they will be staying whilst in the UK. The form also enquires whether they are exempted from quarantining and requires them to state why this is the case.

The form is now live on the gov.uk website. It can only be completed online. 

There is tick a box to answer the question: Are you exempt from self isolating for the first 14 days you are in the UK? If the 'yes' box is ticked, a further question appears: Why are you exempt from self-isolation? A short answer such as 'I am a seaman' should suffice, according to the UK Chamber of Shipping

It is permitted to complete the form on behalf of another person, but an explanation must be given why this is being done, using a maximum of 500 characters. The form cannot be submitted until 48 hours before the person's arrival time in the UK.

The form must be completed whenever a seafarer is to set foot in the UK and pass through a Border Force checkpoint. A ferry worker who is on board for an extended period of time need not complete it on each occasion when the ferry is to dock in the UK. However, when they leave the ferry to return home, they will be required under current rules to complete it.

Failure to complete the form could result in a £100 fine. 

Fill in the form here

5. My employer is refusing to pay me after ordering mandatory self-isolation, is this legal?

If an employer orders you to self-isolate following a visit to a Covid-19 hotspot, you should still be paid in accordance with your SEA.

An employer should not order you to take unpaid contractual or statutory leave for which you would normally be paid. Any contravention of this can be challenged with the assistance of Nautilus.

The government has announced a support package for those who have suffered financial detriment because of Covid-19. Affected members should contact their industrial official for advice.

6. My employer is refusing off-signing and repatriation at the end of my contract due to Covid-19 fears at port, is this legal?

When the pandemic first broke, the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) had reluctantly agreed to two 30-day periods of crew contract extensions under the IBF Framework Agreement. When asked for a third time it refused. Instead, governments were given an extra 30 days to implement crew changes in accordance with the industry protocols circulated by IMO.

This should mean governments finally get crew changes moving and recognise that seafarers are key workers who deserve to get home or back to work.

The deadline for crew changes is June 15.

Under the MLC you have a right to be repatriated once your tour of duty is finished.

An employer can only refuse that if, under your SEA, there is a clause that permits it to extend the tour of duty.

However, what if you would rather not get off the ship? Although the MLC states that seafarers cannot forego annual leave and that they have the right to be repatriated if they have been onboard for 12 months (effectively 11 months when annual leave is subtracted) the ILO has indicated that flag states have the flexibility to make exceptions to the prohibition against forgoing annual leave for imperative reasons of public health, such as the need to contain coronavirus.

This should only be used with appropriate safeguards to protect seafarers, such as obtaining their consent and ensuring that they do not lose their accrued annual leave or right to repatriation. Check with your flag state to see if ship owners can extend this flexibility to you without being in danger of breaching their MLC obligations.

Your employer will be liable to pay you for any such extension of your tour of duty.

The UK government has stated that it is committed to upholding its obligations under the international conventions regarding the transit and transfer of seafarers and their right to access shore leave.

7. What if I get sick or contract the Covid-19 virus while onboard, what are my rights?

You have a duty to protect yourself while at sea and a duty to protect others who may be affected by your activities.

You should follow the general advice published by the World Health Organization (WHO), The International Maritime Health Association (IMHA) and The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS). There may also be a company policy (check their website) and perhaps flag state advice

You should also seek advice from the onboard medical officer and inform your line manager/master.

8. I am feeling unwell onboard and due to dock in a port that is refusing shore access, what can I do?

MLC states that when you are in port you have a right to visit a medical doctor 'where practicable'. In an MLC-ratifying state you also have the right to shore leave and to access shore-based welfare facilities.

Flag states do have the right to refuse shore leave if they have reason to believe that a vessel may be carrying an infectious disease and, any local restrictions in force limiting non-essential travel would apply equally to seafarers. In these instances it would not be unreasonable to restrict shore leave.

If you have any concern regarding these matters, then contact Nautilus for advice.

The ship owner is also obliged to provide you with free onboard medical care.

9. I have been hospitalised abroad with Covid-19, is my employer liable for medical bills and sick pay?

The ship owner has a duty to pay for your medical care and treatment, therapeutic appliances, and board and lodging until you have recovered. You will also be entitled to full pay until you are repatriated. After repatriation you will be entitled to pay (in whole or in part – check flag state law) until at least 16 weeks from the date you became sick.

If the ship owner refuses unreasonably to allow for medical checks or medical help, that would be a serious breach of flag state MLC laws, rendering the ship owner liable to prosecution.

While in a foreign port ships will also be governed by the port state’s MLC laws. So an MLC onshore complaint may also be lodged with the local maritime authority.

Action from your union can help enforce these mechanisms.

10. I am home on leave and ready to rejoin my ship, however the ship owner is refusing to send me back, what can I do?

Firstly, contact Nautilus, as such cases are likely to be very fact-sensitive, and require industrial and legal intervention. Nautilus will try to get you back to work, or at least ensure that you are paid if it is the ship owner that is preventing your return.

Some SEAs allow the ship owner to suspend work for 'force majeure' or unforeseen circumstances without pay, depending on which national laws the SEA is governed by.

However, if your SEA is subject to UK law, and there is no such clause, then you should be entitled to continued payment.

11. My Certificate of Competency (CoC) is due to be renewed. What do I do?

The MCA has implemented temporary measures to ensure that seafarers certificates continue to remain valid for sea service.

Any seafarer who has completed all the requirements for a UK CoC can email their application to the MCA, or download this form, in order to be issued with a temporary CoC valid for six months.

Any seafarer who has been unable to complete any aspect of STCW safety training due to disruption caused by Covid-19 can apply to the MCA for an exemption. The process to be followed will depend on individual circumstances.

12: My medical certificate is due to be renewed. What do I do?

The UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) on April 6 updated the extensions available for expired, or about to expire, medical certificates during the Covid-19 pandemic from three months to six months.

The changes apply to ENG 1 holders on UK flagged vessels including seafarers and fishers and adds a provision around non-UK medical certificates when used on UK Ships.

13. Am I permitted to travel to my vessel for on-signing during the lockdown?

As recognised key workers, UK based seafarers are eligible to travel to and from a vessel. However, you should ensure that you carry at all times your professional documentation, ie seafarers' identity document, Certificate of Competency, discharge book or discharge papers.

Nautilus is aware that some companies are providing letters to their employees identifying that the bearer is a seafarer required to join a vessel however since the easing of restrictions in the UK there should be no need to provide evidence of your reason for travel.

With regards to international travel, the IMO and ILO have urged all governments to designate seafarers as key workers and exempt them from any travel restrictions in order to facilitate crew changes. Seafarers travelling internationally to join their vessels should be provided with detailed information by their companies. Members experiencing difficulties should contact their industrial organiser.

14: Am I eligible for the UK government's furloughed workers payment scheme?

The UK job retention scheme that provides support to workers temporarily laid off (furloughed workers) applies to UK business and employees on PAYE. (click here for the government’s advice).

Many of our UK resident members work on offshore contracts and may not be eligible for the scheme.

Also, many of our members work on voyage contracts with non-UK based employers who do not operate PAYE. We are actively seeking clarification that the scheme for self-employed workers and freelancers will assist those members without a UK employer operating PAYE.

We anticipate that these and other questions will be answered as more details around the governments coronavirus support measures becomes available.

UK/EU resident members who are in this position should seek independent financial advice as it is possible that having made claims in the past for Seafarers Earnings Deduction (SED) HMRC will have your tax records and this may assist HMRC in identifying seafarers who may be eligible for the self-employed scheme both in terms of your past earnings and National Insurance contributions. There are several specialised seafarer’s tax advisory services available but one we have worked with in the past is Seatax.

15: I am self-employed and pay Class 2 UK National Insurance contributions. Am I eligible for government benefits?

Many of our members are not able to make Class 1 contributions and opt instead for Class 2 (self-employed). Either way they should be able to claim benefits if they are unemployed or on reduced income.

Members who have not maintained their national insurance contributions may face difficulties accessing some of the available benefits. There is advice on national insurance for seafarers available here.

Nautilus supports the Seafarers Assistance and Information Line (SAIL) and members can seek advice from them on their benefit entitlements. Any employment related queries should be referred to the Nautilus Organising department or your Industrial Organiser.

Further information on the support available to members is also available here.

16: I have been laid off by my company. What are the options for alternative employment?

Members have reported renewed interest particularly in the Oil and Gas sector for UK seafarers.

Nautilus has made representations to the government, the department for transport and the shipping industry calling for them to put in place mechanisms to ensure that shortages of seafarers caused by labour supply countries restricting travel can be met by UK seafarers. 

In addition to ensuring that UK seafarers are designated as key workers and that they are able to revalidate their Certificates of Competency despite the disruption caused by the covid-19 pandemic, Nautilus, in conjunction with the RMT and UKCoS has developed a jobs matching service for those affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

Further vacancies can be found on the Nautilus Jobs Board here.

17. The UK has promised that ports will stay open to allow seafarers to transit and repatriate home. Does that also include shore leave?

The UK has reiterated that it will continue to uphold its commitments under the various international conventions and this includes the right to shore leave.

Seafarers exercising their right to shore leave in UK ports will still be expected to abide by any restrictions in force locally including social distancing and if arriving from a non UK port will be required to complete the public health locator form.

18. I have been asked to attend an interview with authorities in Covid-19 enquiries, what help and advice is available?

In the face of growing criminalisation of the maritime profession, the Nautilus Federation has developed a Joint Assistance and Support Network (JASON), which was launched in January 2017.

The Federation unions have pledged to provide reciprocal assistance and support to the other unions and their members, if a member requires help following a maritime incident in the assisting union’s port, territory or territorial waters; or while onboard a ship registered in the country in which the assisting union is situated.

In particular, JASON is aimed at ensuring that the IMO/ILO Guidelines on the Fair Treatment of Seafarers in the event of a Maritime Accident, and other internationally recognised legal standards, are observed.

The objective of the Guidelines is to ensure that seafarers are treated fairly following a maritime accident and during any investigation, interview or detention by public authorities, and that this detention is for no longer than necessary.

Any members who fear they will be interviewed by authorities in Covid-19 inquiries will benefit from reading the guidelines on Fair Treatment of Seafarers on the Nautilus Federation website.  Although the guides are written primarily for more conventional maritime incidents, the advice and guidance would equally apply and be helpful in situation investigations arising out of Covid-19.

There is a handy checklist on what to do if boarded by officials and a link to our world wide lawyers directory.

19. Do I have to wear a face mask at work onboard?

Face covering will be mandatory on UK public transport including ferries in England from 15 June.

The new ruling will apply to all front-line ferry workers and those that come into contact with passengers. It covers all public transport networks including ferries, busses, rail and underground transport.

The condition will be monitored by transport police and individuals found to be flouting the rules could be fined.

The Union is campaigning for ferry operators to provide front line seagoing employees with the necessary Personal Protective Equipment to enable them to comply with this new rule.

There will be some exceptions to the rule for very young children, for people with disabilities and for people with breathing difficulties.

The new rule currently applies to England only. The devolved governments in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are expected to provide their own guidance.

Don't forget...

Members with any concerns about coronavirus should contact their industrial official or the Nautilus 24/7 helpline.

Members are also urged to check their ship owner's responsibilities under flag state laws, including those imposed under implementation of the MLC on matters such as health and safety, medical care, sick pay and repatriation. Flag states that have ratified the MLC are required to ensure that ship owners provide their seafarers with adequate measures for protection of their health, and that they have access to prompt and adequate medical care whilst on board. This reflects the general duty of care of employers to provide a safe place and system of work for their employees.

If your flag state does not uphold its responsibilities under MLC it can be reported to the International Labour Organization (ILO). Contact your union for help in this situation.  If your ship owner does not comply with its MLC responsibilities, you can make a complaint to your manager/master, flag state or port authority.

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