Seafarers and aircrew classified as ‘essential workers’ for prioritized COVID-19 vaccination

A call has been made for seafarers and aircrew to be considered as ‘essential workers’ and to be prioritized for the COVID-19 vaccination along with others in that group.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), along with its partners, maritime and air transport are two central activities to global trade and mobility, and play a vital role in the global supply chains and in the provision of humanitarian aid.

In a statement made available to, the WHO noted that seafarers and aircrew play a key role in global socioeconomic recovery and it is estimated that 400 000 seafarers are currently stranded on board commercial vessels, unable to be repatriated, while a similar number are unable to join the ships to replace them.

It said national governments would determine which populations should be prioritized for vaccination, based on supplies and their epidemiological situation, but added that in November 2020, the WHO issued the SAGE Prioritisation Roadmap to guide countries in this decision-making.

According to the roadmap, essential workers outside the health and education sectors should be considered for vaccination when there is moderate vaccine availability, enough for 21-50 per cent of the population.

Following up on these issues, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), International Labour Organization (ILO), International Maritime Organization (IMO), International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the WHO have just issued a joint statement on the prioritization of the vaccines for seafarers and aircrew.

According to the statement, maritime and air transport rely on seafarers and aircrew as key workers required to travel across borders at all times, which may result in the need for them to present proof of a COVID-19 vaccination as a condition for entry in some countries.

“This is despite WHO recommendation that, at the present time, countries should not introduce requirements of proof of vaccination for international travel as a condition of entry, as there are still critical unknowns regarding the efficacy of vaccination in reducing transmission and limited availability of vaccines,” it said.

“For shipping and air transport to continue to operate safely, the safe cross border movement of seafarers and aircrew must be facilitated. We reiterate our call upon countries that have not done so to designate seafarers and aircrew as key workers.

“With this statement, our organizations also call on governments to prioritize seafarers and aircrew in their national COVID-19 vaccination programmes, together with other essential workers, in accordance with the advice from the WHO SAGE Roadmap for prioritizing the use of COVID-19 vaccines in the context of limited supply published in November 2020,” the WHO added.

The statement said seafarers and aircrew need to be protected through vaccination as soon as possible, to facilitate their safe movement across borders.

“We also call on governments to identify and prepare for the challenges of COVID-19 vaccination of seafarers and aircrew, particularly for seafarers spending long periods of time away from their home country.”

“Our organizations fully support the timely development of an international harmonized framework for vaccination certificates, to facilitate international travel for seafarers and aircrew,” it noted.

The statement said maritime and air transport are two essential activities that underpin global trade and mobility and are key to a sustainable socio-economic recovery.

“More than 80 per cent of global trade by volume is moved by maritime transport. The global economy depends on the world’s two million seafarers who operate the global fleet of merchant ships.”

“Seafarers have been severely impacted by the travel restrictions imposed during the pandemic. As of January 2021, it is estimated that some 400,000 seafarers are stranded on board commercial vessels, long past the expiry of their contracts and unable to be repatriated. A similar number of seafarers urgently need to join ships to replace them,” the statement added.

It noted that passenger air transport carried about 5.7 billion passengers in 2019 while airfreight represents 35 per cent of the value of goods shipped in all modes combined.

“The total number of licensed aviation professionals, which include pilots, air traffic controllers and licensed maintenance technicians, was 887,000 in 2019, according to ICAO personnel statistics.”

“Application of stringent public health rules to air crew, including quarantine, has resulted in hindered connectivity, operational complexity and significant cost,” it said.

In December 2020, the WHO established a Smart Vaccination Certificate working group to ensure that digitalized versions of vaccine certificates are interoperable.

By Eunice Menka
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