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Health and safety

Nautilus FAQs on Covid-19 Coronavirus

10 November 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 10 November – updates to questions 4 and 18 and new question 5 added

Thursday 11 November - updates to questions 1 and 2

1. I am due to join my ship but am worried about travelling, can I refuse?

Refusal to join a ship would be considered misconduct or gross misconduct under many SEAs even with such a public health concern. Check your SEA and any applicable Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), to see if there are any relevant clauses. Employers should communicate with employees to explain the mitigating actions they have taken and what seafarers should do to protect themselves whilst travelling. Companies should comply with the Covid-19 Crew change protocols which have been drawn up by industry bodies and endorsed by the IMO

Employers demanding travel to an unsafe destination could be in contravention of national government travel advice, risk corporate travel insurance cover becoming invalid 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 destination where infection rates are high?

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 an area of high infection as part of its rotation, as the risk of contracting the virus could be considered minimal if you are not going ashore and there is no contact with the local population. Companies should have conducted detailed risk assessments and communicated these with their employees.

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 England, except for those countries now on a UK government-designated 'safe travel corridor' list. [A list of countries and territories from where you can travel to England and may not have to self-isolate. Different guidance applies to WalesScotland, and Northern Ireland].

In general seafarers, masters and pilots who have been repatriated to the UK or travelled to the UK in the course of their work, are exempt from quarantine.

However, the list of 'safe countries' is constantly revised and members are urged to sign up to get an email alert whenever this page is updated.

For example, on 6 November the UK imposed a 14-day quarantine for seafarers and banned ships travelling from Denmark following a Coronavirus mutation linked to farmed minks.

It should be noted that seafarers, masters and pilots must complete the required passenger information form (see Q5).

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.

5. Do I need to fill in a 'Public Health Passenger Locator Form' when returning to the UK? 

As of 8 June, returning persons (including seafarers) have been required to complete a 'Public Health Passenger Locator Form' giving details of their journey to the UK Border Force, 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 and 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 seafarer' should suffice.

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. 

In the online government guidance Coronavirus (COVID-19): travellers exempt from border rules in the UK, seafarers are listed and defined under the section headed : Seamen and masters as defined in section 313(1) Merchant Shipping Act 1995, maritime pilots as defined in para 22(1) of schedule 3A of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995, and inspectors and surveyors of ships appointed under section 256 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995

Seafarers need to complete the Public Health passenger locator form before travelling to the UK if travelling in a part of the vessel that is accessible to any passenger for any part of the journey, unless passengers remain in their vehicles in that area (for example on a roll-on, roll-off ferry).

You do not need to complete the Public Health passenger locator form if you travel in a part of the vessel that is not accessible to passengers or you travel on a vessel which does not carry passengers (e.g. fishing boats).

You will not need to self-isolate.

If you work on a ship, including fishermen, you should show a Seafarers Identification Document (SID) if you have one.

If you don't have a SID, you can show your joining papers, seafarers employment agreement or a seafarers discharge book (Continuous Certificate of Discharge) instead. Alternatively, you could show a basic training certificate or declaration from the registered owners of the vessel that you are a crew member.

6. 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.

During such a period, 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 introduced the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme for employees who had been furloughed by their employer. Under the scheme employers can pay furloughed workers a claim 80% of the payments back from the government (up to a maximum of £2,400 per month). However, this will only apply to seafarers whose employer is registered for PAYE with HMRC and has a UK bank account. The terms of the scheme change regularly. For further information visit:

https://www.gov.uk/guidance/claim-for-wage-costs-through-the-coronavirus-job-retention-scheme

See also FAQ 14 below.

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

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.

When the pandemic first broke, the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) had twice reluctantly agreed to 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.

As time has passed, the conditions for repatriation and transfer of seafarers have improved. The ILO's 'Information note on maritime labour issues and coronavirus (COVID-19)' emphasises that shipowner's must repatriate seafarers, unless that is impossible due to coronavirus related circumstances beyond their control.

The UK has recently updated and re-issued MIN 632 (M), for UK ships, and takes account of the ILO note and other international protocols. It describes the very limited circumstances in which seafarers can be offered an extension to their SEA when they cannot be repatriated due to Covid-19 related barriers. Seafarers must be given the right to take advice: they cannot be forced to accept and extension, it must be agreed with informed consent.

Seafarers must not lose the right to be repatriated or take annual leave, although these may be deferred until the obstructive circumstances no longer exist. Seafarers must always be paid their contractual wages during any period of an extension of their SEA.

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.

8. 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.

The IMO has also circulated new guidelines for the cruise industry for the safe resumption of the cruise sailings. The Covid-19 EU Guidance for Cruise Ship Operations has been drawn up by the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and includes recommendations on what should happen in outbreaks onboard as part of the ship management plan, and the measures to be taken to protect communities in ports. These should all be communicated to crew as well as passengers before arrival in each port.

9. 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.

10. 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.

11. 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.

12. 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.

13. 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.

14. 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.

15. 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) but is expected to expire in October 2020.

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.

16. 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 on our Coronavirus Resources Hub page.

17. 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. 

The Maritime Charities Group has set up a fund administered by the Marine Society to assist seafarers who have been made unemployed with the costs of retraining. Eligible seafarers may be eligible for a bursary of up to £500 to be used for retraining leading to reemployment in the maritime industry. Courses can include MCA-approved and STCW refresher qualifications, maritime-related professional diplomas or ICS qualifications. Members wishing to make use of this fund should contact the Marine Society

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.

18. 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 online public health passenger locator form.

However, on November 6 the UK banned for 14-days passenger planes and ships travelling directly from Denmark, and accompanied freight, following discovery of a new variant of Coronavirus that mutated after interaction with farmed Mink.

All citizens who have travelled through Denmark from 6 November must quarantine for 14 days on arrival in the UK including seafarers.

There will obviously be instances where it is justified for a company, Master or terminal to deny shore leave when based on an assessment of risk at that specific port. However, blanket bans on shore leave or policies which have the effect of being a blanket ban are not in compliance with international conventions which enshrine the right of seafarers to take shore leave. Members experiencing difficulties in this regard should contact their industrial organiser for assistance.

See Q4 for further details. 

19. 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.

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

Face covering has been mandatory on UK public transport including ferries in England from 15 June.

The ruling applies 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 providing their own evolving guidance. People in ScotlandWales and Northern Ireland should follow the specific rules in those parts of the UK.

In addition, in England, it is currently mandatory to wear face coverings in shops, supermarkets, indoor shopping centres, banks, building societies, post offices, and indoor transport hubs. From 8 August, the public will also be required to wear face coverings in a greater number of public indoor settings such as museums, galleries, cinemas, places of worship, and public libraries.

If you live in an area of the UK that is experiencing a local COVID-19 outbreak and where local restrictions have been imposed, different guidance and legislation will apply. Please consult the local restrictions page to see if any restrictions are in place in your area.

21. I am a seafarer returning abroad from holiday or coming to the UK on holiday from a quarantine-list country. As a UK-recognised keyworker, do I still have to self-isolate?

Yes. Seafarers who came to the UK on holiday or returning from holiday from countries which the UK says is now outside the 'safe travel corridors' require quarantine and are not exempt from the UK self isolation rules.

The exemption for seafarers to quarantine is applicable only to those travelling for the purposes of joining or leaving a vessel and not for reasons of general travel or tourism.

When you arrive in the UK, you will not be allowed to leave the place where you're staying for the first 14 days you're in the UK (known as 'self-isolating') unless you're arriving from an exempt country. Please keep an eye on this list as it may change at short notice.

Be aware also that following the UK government's sudden decision on 27 July 2020 to revoke the 'travel corridor' arrangement for an evolving list of countries, several Isle of Wight ferry companies have also imposed foot passenger restrictions.

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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