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COVID-19: Update on the strict approach adopted by the South African authorities in light of two recent incidents of COVID-19 positive crew

6 May 2021
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It has been over a year since the commencement of the world wide lockdown as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although some countries are well on their way in terms of vaccination efforts and effective control of the spread of the virus others, most notably India and the Philippines, are in the midst of a health crisis as a result of the virus.

In South Africa, vaccination efforts are in its infancy despite the country’s borders and economy being open. With the upcoming winter months, this means that behavioural controls are essential at controlling the spread of the virus.

At the same time, there has been a stark increase in the number of COVID-19 cases on board vessels whilst mid-voyage. This has resulted in risk to healthy crew members, high stress situations, operational delays as a result of quarantine and, as a result, increased costs to ship owners and their insurers.

Within the past week, two vessels have entered South Africa’s busy commercial ports with several crew members testing positive for COVID-19.

The South African authorities have adopted a strict approach to these and any future cases as it relates to the Master of the vessel’s failure to issue a true and correct free pratique or maritime health declaration, prior to entering a South African port.

The free pratique is a legal document and must record whether any crew are unwell or have known symptoms of COVID-19.

If the Master issues a false declaration by failing to record any illness which is later discovered by the Port Health authorities, this constitutes an offence in terms of the Disaster Management Act, 2002 and the Regulations issued pursuant thereto.

In the event that the Port Health authorities suspect that a false free pratique has been issued, they are obliged to lay a criminal complaint with the South Africa Police Service against the Master of the relevant vessel.

This may result in the Master being arrested and charged with an offence, being the contravention of the Disaster Management Act, 2002. The investigation will likely delay the vessel further and result in great distress to the crew and Master.

Although imprisonment is contemplated by the legislation for serious infringements, it is likely that the Master will, once the investigation has concluded, be provided with the opportunity to plead guilty to the offence and pay a fine.

Given the recent arrival of a vessel from India with COVID-19 positive crew on board in Durban,  on 5 May 2021, the National Port Authority issued NOTICE No.13 – HEALTH RISK ALERT, copy of which can be accessed here.

Notably, clause 3.1 confirms, in summary, that any false declaration will be treated seriously by the authorities. The Notice also places the onus on the vessel’s agent to ensure that accurate declarations are issued or face the suspension of registration as ships agents.

Bowmans has experience in assisting with all matters relating to COVID-19 cases on board vessels arriving in South Africa, dealing with the relevant stakeholders and authorities, including the South African Police Service, and ensuring the protection of ship owner’s and their insurer’s interests.