The Philippine Coast Guard is testing crew members returning to the country on board numerous cruise ships for COVID-19.
There are several cruise ships anchored in Manila Bay and more are due in the coming days to repatriate Filipino crew.
Those showing negative results will be helped to get home while seafarers testing positive will be moved to a medical facility onshore for treatment.
The Coast Guard had previously implemented a 14-day quarantine period for all overseas workers returning to the county, which is still in place for workers coming back from both land and sea positions.
A large numbers of cruise ship employees are due to return to The Philippines in the coming weeks. The first cruise ship reached Manila around two weeks ago, as the Australian-based ships arrived. Since then, more cruise ships that were operating from China and other areas, have also arrived in Manila.
Currently, there are more than a dozen cruise ships, including those operated by Carnival Cruise Line, Cunard, Costa, P&O Australia, and Royal Caribbean, anchored in Manila Bay with other cruise ships off Luzon island.
In the coming days, Carnival Cruise Line’s ‘Carnival Panorama’, Holland America Line’ ‘Westerdam’ and ‘Noordam’, and Princess Cruises’ ‘Royal Princess’ and ‘Pacific Princess’ are expected to arrive at Manila. Other cruise ships are also believed to be bound for the Philippines after recently taking on crew members from other ships in their fleets before sailing from North America.
Previously, several of the cruise lines had arranged charter flights to return seafarers to The Philippines. Royal Caribbean and its sister brand Celebrity Cruises both recently requested permission to operate additional charter flights to repatriate crew members from their ships currently based in North America.
An example of the scale of the problem was highlighted by Sharp Crew Management, which has repatriated more than 8,000 cruise ship crew members from around the world.
Singapore-based Managing director, Roger Storey, explained: “Over the past seven weeks we have repatriated more than 8,000 crew from Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises – thanks to the provision of 13 full charter flights and two commercial flights. Needless to say, this mass repatriation has not been an easy task to accomplish!”
The company advised that two further charter flights from the US have been approved but, as a result of last week’s closure of the main airport in Manila, these have now been put on hold. Storey said: “We expect to be able to bring in these flights around the middle of this month, which should bring our total repatriated crew to around 9,000.”
Singapore and Manila-based Sharp, which specialises in providing crew to the international shipping market, said it had been putting all its efforts into crew repatriation – particularly difficult especially with quarantines and fast-changing protocols to be observed.
Storey explained: “The first challenge we encountered was to find hotel rooms for arriving crew as, at that time, pretty much every hotel in the Metro Manila area had been closed down as a result of the lockdown.
“With great assistance from the (local) Department of Health (DoH) and Bureau of Quarantine (BoQ), we were able to secure several hotels early on and have been able to hold on to them. Out of the 8,000 repatriated crew, almost 6,000 of them have now been able to proceed home after completing their 14-day quarantine – some then needed to undertake another 14-day community quarantine, but most were able to carry out a 14-day self-quarantine at home.
“At present, we have almost 2,000 crew from Visayas and Mindanao who are stranded in Manila, unable to get to their provinces. The Philippines’ Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) and Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) had organised for ferries to take them to Cebu, Iloilo, Bacolod and other places in the south but unfortunately this has not been successful and is now suspended indefinitely.
“The reason for closing the airport for a week is to be able to schedule sweeper flights to enable these stranded crew members to leave Manila,” he said.
Looking ahead, the procedure may now speed up, as guidelines for crew repatriation in the Philippines were amended to require all crew to undergo RT-PCR swab testing on arrival. Those who test negative will be able to forgo the 14-day quarantine in Manila and can proceed home for either community or home quarantine.
Storey warned: “We still have a lot of work to do. Our first order of business is to update our database, making sure all those repatriated crew are signed off on the correct date – a process which I expect will take us up to three weeks. Then we will have to check each file to ensure all their documents are up to date, identify any which need to be renewed, and establish any training requirements. Given that most Government offices, as well as training centres, are presently closed, this part may become a bit tricky!”
When cruising resumes, Storey predicted that further challenges will need to be overcome. “From what we know at this point, cruise vessels may start operating from European waters first. This means that a large number of crew will have to obtain Schengen visas. For now, all embassies are closed, so there isn’t much we can do to prepare,” he said.