The government has backtracked on plans to urgently test every single person who had come into the Ports of Auckland for Covid-19.
Last week the Ministry of Health issued a mandatory testing order for all workers at the Auckland and Tauranga ports as part of its border blitz.
It had hoped to get all of those workers tested by midnight last night, but only managed to get about a fraction swabbed – 3485 workers as at 1pm today.
The previous order had covered anyone who had come into contact with the port since 21 July – that was more than 5000 people from 800 organisations at the Ports of Auckland alone.
The current order has been narrowed to focus on higher risk workers, such as those dealing directly with ships and ship workers, and anyone with symptoms to be tested.
The Road Transport Forum had opposed the testing of truck drivers saying they came into contact with hardly anyone at the borders, and Ports of Auckland spokesman Matt Ball agreed that it made sense to reign in the testing.
“The scale of the previous order was huge and probably not necessary, given the low and pretty much zero risk for people like truck drivers.”
He said the ministry had now come to grips with how the supply chain at the ports worked and how many people actually interacted with the ports.
Ball said the ports had been asking for testing since April and the government had been slow to respond.
Ongoing testing will now continue at the Ports of Auckland and the Tauranga Port, and Health Minister Chris Hipkins said it was also being rolled out at other ports around the country.
The government still doesn’t know what the source of the latest Covid cluster in Auckland is.
The first case is believed to be a worker at the Americold facility who displayed symptoms on 31 July.
Testing at the borders will continue as health authorities work to figure out any gaps.
Hipkins said he would be issuing two public health orders by the end of the week – one formalising the testing regime for air crew and the other formalising routine testing moving forward.
The logistics skills of the busy ports of Auckland and Tauranga are being showcased to the max as they respond to out-of-the-blue and fast-changing Ministry of Health directives to ensure urgent Covid-19 testing of all their users and staff.
Both ports say the latest, much expanded, directive, issued on Saturday just hours after director general of health Ashley Bloomfield surprised the sector with an urgent testing order, will affect about 6000 people at each port – but they expect little disruption to operations.
However the Road Transport Forum says the Government’s “panicked reaction” to try to find if freight is the source of the return of Covid-19’s community transmission, is causing “mayhem” at the ports for trucking operators.
On Friday with no warning, Bloomfield ordered “everyone who works at the maritime border” to be tested by 11.59pm on Monday night. Testing applied for all people who worked at ports around New Zealand who might come into contact with ships’ crew.
With testing facilities reportedly scarce or stretched even this was a tall order, but Saturday’s order widened the test requirement to anyone who had worked at Auckland or Tauranga ports since 11.59pm on Tuesday July 21. According to spokespeople for the two ports, collectively that involves about 12,000 people.
Those having to be tested included shipping agents, stevedores, cargo drivers, contractors, suppliers of goods and services, government agency employees and any crew members who may have come ashore.
The ports were to work with their local DHBs and take all practical steps to ensure their constituents were aware of the order. People could be tested at a community testing centre or at a testing centre set up at the port.
Auckland’s port has had a testing facility waterside since Thursday. A spokesman said around 1000 people had been tested over three days.
A Port of Tauranga spokeswoman said the port had set up a testing site for the DHB, but as at Sunday evening there were no DHB testers yet on site.
She said as it was surveillance testing, people without symptoms were not required to wait until they had test results before returning to work.
“Work groups are separated at the moment due to Covid-19 precautions so it would be highly unlikely that any infection would spread far,” she said.
A Maritime NZ notice said a message about the broader testing requirement had been sent to all port companies, stevedoring companies, unions, harbourmasters, agents, organisations representing the marine industry, fishing operators and maritime operators.
The Ports of Auckland spokesman said it was important to note that port workers never directly touched freight, which was handled remotely or by machines. Containers were never opened at the port by workers. The port had had Covid-19 security and restrictions in place since late January, he said.
“Work groups are separated at the moment due to Covid-19 precautions so it would be highly unlikely that any infection would spread far,” a port spokeswoman said.
After months of urging that ports should be treated like airports for Covid-19 security, New Zealand port companies have been stunned to receive an order from director general of health Ashley Bloomfield for all maritime border staff to be tested for the virus in the next three days.
The ports, through the port companies chief executives group, along with maritime unions, say they have been asking the Ministry of Health since the end of the first lockdown for sea borders to be treated like aviation borders.
Bloomfield’s letter, sent today, said the ministry would work with regional DHBs to provide testing on site “as a matter of urgency”.
“Testing is for all people who work ports around New Zealand who might potentially come into contact with ships’ crew … ” the letter said.
For New Zealand’s biggest port at Tauranga, the order means around 2000 staff and workers must be tested by close of business on Monday.
Ports chief executives’ group spokesman Charles Finny said as recently as two weeks ago the maritime sector had been urging health authorities to test at ports, without success.
A test station has this week been set up at Ports of Auckland. A spokesman said the company had been “dead keen” to see it but the time it has taken for action was frustrating.
Port of Tauranga chief executive Mark Cairns said he had been asking for Covid security at the port to be strengthened since April.
Finny understood from port chief executives he had spoken to on Friday that DHBs intended to set up testing systems at ports over the weekend and on Monday.
“We said months ago that ports should be treated like airports.”
Bloomfield’s letter said along with the new testing requirements, border-based employees needed to continue to take daily health checks.
“Thank you again for the important work you are doing to strengthen practices and to increase vigilance at the maritime border, in order to protect your employees and our community from Covid-19,” it concludes.
An estimated 300,000 crew on merchant ships have been left stranded at sea around the world by the coronavirus pandemic unable to go onshore – including thousands in New Zealand waters – in what advocates say it’s a ‘humanitarian crisis’.
The Ministry of Transport has now allocated $295,000 to help those stuck in New Zealand ports through the Mission to Seafarers’ organisation. Wellington-based chaplain Reverend Lance Lukin is the Oceania Regional Director for the organisation, he talked to Kim Hill on RNZ’s Saturday Morning about the situation.
Lukin says seafarers are one of the most vulnerable and isolated groups in our society.
“There’s thousands of ships coming in and out of New Zealand ports a year. There’s about 1.5 million seafarers at work at any one time in the world.
“And typically for the lower paid – the able bodied seafarer their contracts are around 9 months long. So at the end of that nine months they will be crew changed in and out. So in any month one twelfth of that 1.5 million seafarers are going through crew changes.”
Those at sea now don’t know when they will be able to get home.
He says the International Transportation Federation has called on all seafarers to go on strike at the end of their contracts if they’re not given shore leave and a crew change.
“If that happens, New Zealand’s economy stops overnight – 120 billion of export comes by ship, 99 percent of trade comes by ship.”
Lukin says seafarer centres operate at each port, manned by volunteers – many who are retirees. The money from the Ministry of Transport will be used to employ more workers so fewer volunteers are needed.
“In this time of pandemic we want to limit the number of people who have acess to ships, but we want to continue to provide that much-needed welfare and support.”
He says many sailors are from China, Philippines and India. But both the Philippines and India have tightened border rules, making it harder for crews from those countries to get home.
[They’re] “desperately wanting to go home, desperately wanting to communicate with their families. We had a ship come into Wellington last week with 18 crew on, 12 of whom are 5 months over the expiration of their contract.
“They should be being paid, but we know globally non-payment of wages is one of the key concerns of seafarers.
“And we’re talking about a pretty low paid workforce anyway. The minimum wage in New Zealand is $18 an hour, for a Filipino sailor the average wage is 90 cents an hour – it’s incredibly dangerous, isolated, high risk environment at the best of times – let alone adding in a pandemic.”
Port of Wellington (file photo). Photo: Mission to Seafarers
Many are still working, but can no longer go ashore.
“There’s about 40 or 50 thousand crew trapped on cruise ships off the coast of the US, and in parts of Indonesia and the Philippines, that can’t get off the ships, won’t be allowed to get off the ships.”
In New Zealand, crews who have been symptom-free for 28 days can go into 14 days of managed isolation if they want to go onshore.
“Given the fact that a ship will enter to the Port of Welllington here today, it will be in port for 8 hours, and it will not be in NZ territorial waters for 14 days – so the likelihood of a seafarer actually being able to get off is next to impossible.
“The reality is apart from the cruise ships right at the beginning and there are no cruise ships now – not one case of Covid has come on a container ship or a logging ship, so we don’t want them to come across our borders and bring Covid – but the reality is they don’t want to come across our borders typically because they don’t want to catch Covid, because they’re going to then get back on that ship and spend 28 days going back to China with no medical facilities on board.”
Most countries test seafarers for Covid-19 when they arrive the border. New Zealand does not, but the Mission to Seafarers is pushing to have it introduced.
Lukin says it could mean seafarers calling at multiple ports would get their results from the test while they still had the opportunity to go onshore.
“I talked to a seafarer here in Wellington last week who has not physically touched ground for 183 days – you’ve got to think of the mental health implications of that. We know at the best of times that working at sea is a highly risky environment, and the mental health implications are huge. This is a low paid workforce who have limited resources available on board ships.
“Most ships don’t have gyms or recreational facilities, you’re on board for 9 months, and when you come into a port all you want to do is get off, get some fresh air, and most importantly you want to get access to some wifi so you can Facetime and chat with your family back home who you haven’t seen in 9 months – [wifi] is not available on board ships.”
The Port of Tauranga. Photo: Supplied / Port of Tauranga
The Seafarer Centres provid free wifi, and while they’re closed during the Covid pandemic, the organisations’ workers are donning full Protective Personal Equipment and taking portable wifi units onto the ships.
“So that at least for that eight hour period [while they’re in port] seafarers can hotspot and talk to their families.”
Lukin says while self-harm and suicide statistics are hard to monitor, there’s anecdotal indications these have increased during the pandemic.
“The best outcome really is that New Zealand honours its obligations under the Maritime Labour Convention – the international bill of rights of seafarers – that they have shore leave, that they have access to welfare facilities that are funded and have competent staff to provide the mental health needs they have right now.
“That’s the basic things they want – firstly to have wifi access, and then they want to be able to talk about all the stuff that’s going on in their own lives that they can’t talk to the shipping agent about – because that’s their employer; they can’t talk to the captain about, because he’s their boss on board; they won’t talk to the government authorities about, because they come from countries where governments are feared, so they want to talk to someone independent – which is why we exist.”
Cargo ship crew arriving in Auckland from overseas ports are being told to stay on board their vessel to prevent the potential spread of Covid-19.
Under alert level 1, crews at sea for more than 14 days who have not declared illness are allowed to disembark, but Ports of Auckland says that’s too risky without health checks. Photo: 123RF
Ports of Auckland banned general shore leave for all seafarers arriving in the city when the country went into lockdown.
Under official rules for alert level 1, crews at sea for more than 14 days who have not declared illness are allowed to disembark with no health checks required.
But port spokesperson Matt Ball said this was too risky and it had asked the Ministry of Health for an assurance health checks will be made.
“They can simply walk out into downtown Auckland. There are no health checks or anything like that.
“It’s part of the international rules around shipping and in normal times it’s perfectly fine but at times like this there is potential, we think, for illness to get across the border so we’ve taken steps in addition to the official advice to prevent that.”
Ball said about 10 cargo ships per week arrived in Auckland, each with up to 20 crew on board, and in the last week there had been several cases of crew members arriving and reporting illness.
There had been no confirmed cases of Covid-19 coming through the port via freighters.
But the fact that crew members were reporting illness showed there must be roots of transmission from another port, with the potential for the illness to incubate for a while and be passed on to crew mates, he said.
“We think this needs to be explored fully to make sure that this route is completely closed off.”
He said the port was waiting on further guidance from the ministry about conducting health checks.
Ports of Auckland banned shore leave for crew arriving from Covid-19 hotspots early this year, and a blanket ban has been in place since the country went into lockdown.
“It’s important for the welfare of these crew that they are allowed to go onshore as long as it’s safe and that’s what we’re concerned about.
“We want to make sure it’s safe for the crew and the community,” Ball said.
Ship crew are free to come ashore if they meet health and isolation conditions, except in Auckland where the port company is the only one to ban routine shore leave due to Covid-19, under alert level one.
Elsewhere, if a ship has previously been at sea for 14 days and declares no relevant health problems among crew, there is no test or physical Covid-19 control as they come ashore.
“The Minister is currently seeking advice on further tightening up these requirements,” said a spokesperson for the Minister of Health David Clark, in response to a query from Stuff.
Major ports contacted by Stuff, at Tauranga, Wellington and Lyttelton follow the Ministry of Health and Maritime New Zealand rules, with decisions on shore leave, made by local public health authorities.
Ports of Auckland (POAL) is the only location where the port company made itself one of the gatekeepers, and it does not allow crew to come ashore, due to Covid-19 risk.
“We’re restricting general shore leave because we feel there are insufficient border controls in place and allowing general shore leave would be an unacceptable risk to the community,” said POAL spokesman Matt Ball.
“Crew of foreign vessels must not be transported onto or from the Ports of Auckland without permission from a General Manager from the Ports of Auckland, Customs and Auckland Regional Public Health Service,” said POAL’s ‘Covid-19 Controls for Contact with Visiting Foreign Vessels – alert level 1’ guide.
In a statement, a Port Taranaki spokesman said berths had been busy with methanol, log, bulk feed, and petrochemical vessels visiting the port, and ship crews were taking the opportunity to get off the water, stock up on provisions, and discover New Plymouth.
The “14-days at sea” criteria prior to a ship arriving at its first New Zealand port, is considered to be a Covid-19 self-isolation period under the guidelines applying to shipping.
“Shore leave is not permitted during the self-isolation period. If the crew need to interact with border or port staff they should follow the advice on personal protection for border staff,” said a spokesperson for Wellington’s Centreport.
A spokesperson at another port told Stuff that crew numbers on cargo ships were small, and at any time shipping companies were highly health-conscious.
Lyttelton Port Company told Stuff that while all shore leave had been banned under Covid-19 alert levels four and three, the decision now lay with Canterbury District Health Board.
“It has been reinforced to Port Companies around New Zealand by the Director of Maritime New Zealand that such leave for crew should be allowed if these criteria are met,” said Phil De Joux, LPC’s strategic engagement manager, in a statement.
The major upgrade of Northland’s rail line can’t continue until the coronavirus lockdown ends, but to keep the plan on track more than 100km of new rail line has landed in Whangārei for when work can restart.
The Government is putting more than $205 million into the region’s rail network, including upgrading the line to Auckland and building a spur line to Northport, the deepwater port at Marsden Pt.
Now, 107.7km of rail track has landed at Northport, where it will be stored until the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions are lifted.
All physical work on the upgrade is suspended due to the lockdown but KiwiRail is focused on progressing the project wherever possible, group chief executive Greg Miller said. However, unloading the rail track is not without its problems.
“The Northport team is doing an outstanding job working to unload the rail in smaller teams under social distancing requirements, which both Northport and KiwiRail take extremely seriously given the current pandemic,” Miller said.
“Unloading goods from ships is an essential service as New Zealand needs to remain connected with global freight movements and keep the flow of domestic freight moving. Once the current alert levels drop, we will be able to collect and distribute the rail, ready for it to replace worn-out sections of track.”
KiwiRail teams continue to work from home to co-ordinate the massive project and finalise design details.
“Tunnels will be lowered to enable hi-cube container freight to be transported on the line, which will have a huge impact on how freight is moved in and out of Northland,” Miller said.
“We’re also replacing up to five aging bridges so we can run heavier trains, with these larger containers on the line.
“Having the materials, like the new rail delivery, is crucial for delivering this upgrade for the region.”
Improvements to Northland’s railway lines are being made with almost $205 million of funding from the Provincial Growth Fund (PGF).
A portion of the newly arrived rail will be used for other essential track replacement work throughout the North Island.
Most of the rail will be used to replace existing medium-weight rail, rail in tunnels, and sections of heavily worn rail in Northland.
Regional Development Minister Shane Jones, who is in charge of the PGF, welcomed the rail track delivery.
“I’m really heartened to see the 107,000 metres of heavy-weight rail arriving at Northport, most of which will be used to upgrade the rail line between Swanson and Whangārei,” Jones said.
“The Government is investing almost $205 million into Northland rail – including purchasing land for a potential spur line to Marsden Point – which will help create local jobs and see tens of millions of dollars fed in the regional economy.
“We’re in a very fluid situation with Covid-19. It’s too early to say exactly when work will start but we are getting ready to hit the ground running as soon as it is safe.”
He said when New Zealand emerges from the impacts of Covid-19, the investment in Northland rail will be a welcome boost to the region’s economy.
A “pile-up” is looming at the country’s ports that will restrict the movement of food and medical supplies if non-essential freight destined for closed businesses can’t be cleared, Road Transport Forum chief executive Nick Leggett has warned.
“All manner” of freight could arrive at the same time on cargo ships, he said.
“We now have a situation where many businesses that receive some of that freight are closed and there is nowhere for it to go,” he said.
“The issue with non-essential goods is you can remove them from the port, but if there’s nobody at the receiving end at work, where do you put them?’
The Government needed to recognise that “all freight must move” during New Zealand’s coronavirus lockdown, and not just essential items, Leggett said.
He forecast “constipation” at the ports and massive problems, if the issue wasn’t addressed.
“This an absolute real live thing.”
Mainfreight chief executive Don Braid said it wasn’t seeing congestion yet, but the forum was “making good points”.
“Under the lockdown rules, it is not possible to deliver non-essential freight.”
A successful outcome would require “innovative thinking and action”, he said.
“We are attempting to assist the government agencies through this where we can.”
Leggett said officials at the Transport Ministry had “definitely listened” to the forum’s concerns, but had said the rules stood at this point.
“If it is deemed by the Government to not be essential, it cannot be moved.
“We absolutely appreciate the reasons for that but if we don’t have an ‘all-of supply’ chain solution to this we believe there will be issues in a couple of weeks,” he said.
Transport Ministry supply chain manager Harriet Shelton responded to the forum’s concerns with an update that said its lockdown rules did allow the movement of non-essential goods “if necessary to move or create space for essential goods”.
Leggett said the forum would not have put out its warning lightly at this time.
Reopening closed businesses to accept non-essential freight would “fly in the face” of the reasons for the lockdown, which were to keep as many people home as possible, he said.
“We do appreciate that, but we need a solution.”
Leggett said another problem was that if containers in which non-essential goods were imported were not emptied, there would be a shortage of containers for exported goods going out.
“All freight needs to move during this time to enable the valuable exports that are going out, such as kiwi fruit, access to ports.”
Customs Brokers and Freight Forwarders Association chief executive Rosemary Dawson agreed that the delivery of non-essential cargo remained an issue that would need to be dealt with to avoid congestion.
“Sea freight was operating fairly normally now,” she said.
But Dawson said she “absolutely” shared some of the concerns expressed by the Road Transport Forum, including with regard to the availability of empty shipping containers.
Port of Tauranga chief executive Mark Cairns said it had put in place new measures to allow importers to identify imported cargo required for essential services before it arrived in New Zealand “so that it can be handled and transported first”.
It needed the support and co-operation of importers and exporters to help it manage the flow of cargo “and avoid blocking the path of essential food, medicine, equipment and other supplies”, he said.
Non-essential imported cargo could be temporarily stored on or off-site until it could be collected by truck or transferred by rail to MetroPort Auckland, he said.
Spokeswoman Rochelle Lockely said non-essential freight could be stored near its terminals in Auckland and Tauranga, but once freight went into that “locked stack” it would not be fast to retrieve, so it was important essential items were identified first.
There was a worldwide shortage of shipping containers because of the disruptions caused to supply chains globally by the coronavirus, but that was not something the port had detailed information on, she said.
The port would not charge extra fees for storing non-essential cargo until April 26, apart from one-off handling charges and for power charges needed to keep refrigerated containers cool, Cairns said.
The Road Transport Forum has suggested that some goods that can’t be delivered to closed businesses could be stored on land owned by Kiwirail, but Leggett believed that could only be part of any remedy.
“Closing down the country to the scale we have now hasn’t been done before and it does reveal some issues that need to be addressed pragmatically,” he said.
To illustrate the problem, Leggett said 14,000 cars were expected to arrive from Asia over the next month.
“Those cars cannot stay on the port; they have to go somewhere. The dealers that would normally take them are closed.
“We appreciate cars are not an essential service, however, they are holding space that is needed for essential goods.
“Our industry is looking at how we could find storage for the freight with nowhere to go, but we need the Government to allow that freight to move,” he said.
Leggett said some truck drivers had been stopped by police and asked what they were doing on the roads.
“Well, they are doing a job and it is one that is essential at a time like this.
“They cannot be forced by the Government to be arbiters of what is essential and non-essential on the back of their truck,” he said.
Australian shipping lobby group Shipping Australia has slammed today’s decision by the state of Queensland to introduce restrictions on ships calling at its ports, particularly the container hub of Brisbane.
Maritime Safety Queensland (MSQ) today banned all commercial ships from entering ports in the state if the ship, or anyone on board, has been in any country outside Australia within the past 14 days.
Contravention of the MSQ ruling is a criminal offence, for which the maximum penalty is A$66,725 ($40,000) for an individual and A$333,625 for a corporation.
Shipping Australia said it understood other maritime authorities in the country were considering similar restrictions, and claimed they could put society as a whole at risk.
“Australian port authorities are now exacerbating an already bad coronavirus situation by restricting the ability of cargo ships to deliver desperately needed goods.
“This is putting Australian families at risk by potentially causing supply chain shortages of medicines and everyday consumer needs,” it added.
Shipping Australia’s chief executive, Rod Nairn, said: “The MSQ policy is reckless and indefensible; cargo ship crews are probably the lowest-risk sector in the world, with not one cargo ship crew member yet being confirmed as having Covid-19.”
The organisation noted that most Asia-Australia shipping services “are only six to eight days’ duration and ships would have to potentially wait around for up to 14 days to enter.
“And that’s at a cost of A$25,000 a day. When a port entry costs about A$250,000 a time, shipping lines are indicating that these directions from port authorities to stay away are simply unsustainable”, it said.
It further claimed that some carriers could be forced to omit port calls, which would “lead to massive relocation of cargo away from where it is supposed to be and it will have to be trucked across the continent.
“Trucking costs could escalate. Australia is a big place – it will take days upon days to get to where it is needed. Costs to everyday Australians could rocket.”
And it also claimed that the restrictions would also hit container supply chains serving New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, for which Australian ports commonly act as hubs.
“Blocking shipping’s ability to deliver desperately needed freight to the islands is not an optimal outlook.
“Meanwhile, New Zealand and Australia both have 14-day exclusion periods. So, as of now, the Aus-New Zealand trade is being killed off,” it said.
It might seem like an obvious statement to regular readers of Seatrade Maritime News but despite the global COVID-19 pandemic the world shipping continues to work pretty much as usual round the clock.
As people in many countries find themselves confined to their houses and working from home, we thought it was worth highlighting the shipping industry continues to run as normal, if largely unseen, as usual, to the general public.
Early morning on Friday off Changi point in Singapore on a number of vessels could be seen either on voyages or performing operations at time when most would be yet to start work, even if their current commute consists of little more than walking to the dining room table.
The bulker Ocean Future could be seen performing what appeared to be a transloading operation near Palau Tekong.
The floating crane vessel Asian Hercules sailed through the narrow strait moving from Pasir Gudang, Malaysia to Gul Basin in Singapore according to Marinetraffic.com
The Japanese cruise ship Asuka II was sailing outbound having apparently come dock in Sembawang Shipyard.
Meanwhile at least two other tankers were spotted sailing outbound most likely from Pasir Gudang in Malaysia.