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Operational Considerations For Managing Covid-19 Cases On Board Ships

06 Apr 2020:

In the last few days, IMO has issued 20+ circular letters informing of the measures and arrangement of 20+ flag States in dealing with inspection, certificates, crew change, etc. Here is the IMO’s webpage summarising and providing download links to all the relevant circular letters, including:

Other popular websites include:

30 March 2020: Preliminary list of recommendations for Governments and relevant national authorities on the facilitation of maritime trade during the COVID-19 pandemic  – please refer to IMO Circular Letter No.4204-Add.6

IMO once again urges a practical and pragmatic approach

Further to the Circular Letter No.4204-Add.1 – Covid-19 – Implementation and Enforcement of Relevant IMO Instruments on 19 Feb, IMO issued another circular letter No.4224, dated 19 March 2020, once again urging a practical and pragmatic approach, in these unusual times, to issues like crew changeovers, resupply, repairs, survey and certification and licensing of seafarers.

It highlights that:

  • “One of the goals of IMO, as stated in its Convention, is to ensure availability of shipping services to the commerce of the world, for the benefit of humanity”. … “all IMO Member States” are urged “to bear this in mind when framing their policy decisions with regard to the coronavirus. Defeating the coronavirus must be the first priority, but global trade, in a safe, secure and environmentally friendly manner must be able to continue, too”.
  • “We must also remember the hundreds of thousands of seafarers on ships. They are, unwittingly, on the front line of this global calamity. Their professionalism ensures that the goods we all need are delivered – safely and with minimal impact on our precious environment. These are people, usually far from home and family. Their own health and welfare is as important as that of anyone else”.

The Secretary General of IMO will personally be initiating a series of meetings and consultations with leaders from shipping, ports and other key related sectors so that we can all better understand the issues being faced and develop sensible, practical and unified solutions.

You may refer to updates on IMO’s website at:

Guidance on the prevention and control of COVID-19 on board

IMO issued Circular Letter No.4221 on 18 Mar 2020 with the Guidance on the prevention and control of COVID-19 on board.

Coronavirus (Covid-19) – Guidance Relating to the Certification of Seafarers

IMO issued Circular Letter No.4204-Add.5 on 17 Mar 2020, encouraging:

  1. Flag States to take a pragmatic and practical approach with regard to the extension of the following certificates and endorsements, as strictly necessary:
  • Revalidation of training certificates of seafarers, including medical certificates
  • Issuance of endorsements attesting recognition of certificates in accordance with the STCW Convention 1978, as amended.

2. Port State control authorities to take a pragmatic and practical approach in relation to these certificate and endorsement extensions, and their acceptance in the exercise of control procedures in accordance with article X (Control) and regulation I/4 (Control procedures) of the 1978 STCW Convention, as amended.

International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF)

ITF issued a circular “ITF E-Circular No. 087/D/F/IN/S/SS/2020” on 17 Mar 2020, informing that:

  • ITF has also learned that most flags have been issuing exemptions from the maximum service periods prescribed within the Maritime Labour Convention (Regulation 2.5 Standard A2.5.1 para 2(b)).
  • In order to mitigate problems surrounding the replacement of crew, the ITF has decided that during the period from 17 March 2020 to 16 April 2020, it will not challenge extensions of contracts of up to one month, even when these push the seafarers service periods past the maximum allowable by relevant ITF approved CBA [or MLC], provided individual seafarers consent to such extensions

International Maritime Employers’ Council (IMEC) 

IMEC, referring to the ITF Circular No.087, issued its “Circular (20)20“, commenting that:

  • IMEC has been in discussions with the ITF […] in light of the mounting logistical difficulties our Members are facing when arranging crew reliefs due to the spread of the virus and the closure of many national borders (Philippines, Ukraine, Italy, France, Germany, USA to name a few).
  • We can now report that our social partners have agreed to exercise some flexibility and join most flag states in allowing extensions that go beyond both the CBA and the MLC maximum lengths for at least the next 30 days.

IMO reiterates principles of avoiding unnecessary restrictions or delay on port entry to ships

IMO issued Circular Letter No.4204/Add.1 on 19 Feb 2020, reiterating principles of avoiding unnecessary restrictions or delay on port entry to ships:

  • “in the current context of the outbreak, to ensure that, where appropriate, passengers can be embarked and disembarked, cargo operations can occur, ships can enter and depart shipyards for repair and survey, stores and supplies can be loaded, certificates can be issued and crews can be exchanged”.

The same Circular Letter No.4204/Add.1 also informs of the message of ILO:

  • “In the context of the evolving coronavirus outbreak, the effective protection of the health and safety of seafarers should be a priority. Under the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Maritime Labour Convention, 2006, flag States must ensure that all seafarers on ships flying their flag are covered by adequate measures for the protection of their health and that they have access to prompt and adequate medical care whilst working on board. The Convention also requires port States to ensure that seafarers on board ships in their territory who are in need of immediate medical care are given access to medical facilities on shore.”

Flag State actions

INTERCARGO Members are encouraged to liaise with the flag States of your fleet and check for the latest update from them.

The flag States of your fleet may have sent you their notice about their “pragmatic and harmonized approach”. For instance, the Marine Advisory 07/2020 of Liberia, dated 24 Feb 2020, recognises potential difficulties faced by shipowners and requests that:

  • “Shipowners and Operators who are or may be experiencing difficulties should contact the Administration immediately for assistance when the Inspector, Auditor or Surveyor is unable to attend.”

IMO Circular Letter No.4226 dated 20 Mar 2020, informing of the flexible arrangement of Canada on: “Extending the Validity of Canadian Marine Personnel Certificates.”

IMO Circular Letter No.4228 dated 23 March 2020, informing of arrangements taken the Netherlands on:

  • Survey and Certification of ships flying the Dutch flag
  • Joining and Repatriation of seafarers from ships
  • Exemptions to the Minimum Safe Manning Document (MSMD)
  • Issue or Revalidation of a Dutch Certificate of Competency (CoC) or a Certificate of Proficiency (CoP) for tankers, Polar Code or IGF
  • Dutch Seaman’s Book
  • Certificates of Proficiency (CoP) for ratings
  • Issue of a Recognition of a Certificate of Competency where a seafarer is unable to disembark the ship
  • Seafarers with expired Certificates of Proficiency (= safety training)
  • Seafarers who are onboard a ship beyond their Seafarer Employment Agreement (SEA) for reasons connected to COVID-19
  • Port State Control

IMO Circular Letter No.4230 dated 24 Mar 2020, informing of the flexible arrangement of Panama on:

  • Crew change
  • Extension of Seafarers employment Agreement
  • Extension of Seafarers Certificates including Certificates of Endorsement

IMO Circular Letter No.4232 dated 24 Mar 2020, informing of similar measures implemented by:

  • Georgia;
  • The Republic of Poland; and
  • Ukraine

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) posted Temporary revalidation requirements for international certificates of competency on 27 to extend seafarer certificates for up to six months on its website.

PSC actions

  1. Tokyo MoU

On the Tokyo MoU website, it issues guidance for dealing with impact of the outbreak of the COVID-19. It says:

  • member Authorities of the  Tokyo  MOU  have  agreed  to  adopt  guidance for  dealing  with  the  circumstances (such  as  extending  periods of  service  onboard  of  seafarers,  delaying  periods  for  surveys, inspections and audits, etc.) in a pragmatic and harmonized approach.
  • In accordance  with  the  guidance,  the port  State  Authority should  request  the operator concerned to confirm  that  flag  State  and/or  RO,  relevant  seafarers  organizations  (if  appropriate) have been involved in the process. For consideration of the request by the port  State  Authority,  operators/companies  concerned  should  provide  a  plan  or  process containing equivalent solutions to address the COVID-19 situation and letters of dispensation or exemption by the flag State or RO, under which the period of gracefor delaying surveys, inspections or audits should be no more than three months, in accordance with the relevant regulations of conventions.

2) Indian Ocean MoU

Indian Ocean MoU issued two circulars on 20 Mar 2020 (, with one dealing with issues of  extending  periods  of  crew service  on  board  ships  under MLC and the other with the requirements of the surveys, inspections and audits under SOLAS, as follows:

  1. Guidance for dealing with impact of the outbreak of the COVID-19 relating to MLC 2006, Circular Letter No. 1/2020, dated 20.03.2020

Considering the issue  of  extending  periods  of  service  on  board  ships  and  accepting that  there  may  be  a need  to  apply  flexibility  under  the  circumstances, requests would be considered on a case by case basis by the relevant port State:

  • The port State should request the operator of the ship confirm that the flag State and relevant seafarer organisations (if applicable) have been involved in the process.
  • When  advising  the  port  State  of  the  need  to  extend  periods  on  board,  the  operator  should provide  a  plan  or  process  that  covers  how  variations  to  the  MLC  requirements  would  be managed.
  1. Guidance for dealing with impact of the outbreak of the COVID-19 relating to relevant IMO Conventions, Circular Letter No. 2/2020, dated 20.03.2020

As  a  general  principle  the  following  guidelines  would  be applied on a case by case basis by the relevant port State Authority:

  • In the event that a ship has not complied with, the ship  must  provide  evidence  to  the  port  State  that  the  flag  State  has  agreed  to  an  exceptional delay specific to COVID-19. There should also be evidence that the ship has a plan that covers how the ship will be brought back into the regular survey or audit cycle.
  • This pragmatic relaxation of requirements should be applied by port States on ships which have exceeded the requirements by not more than three months. Any vessel beyond the grace period of three months should be treated in the normal manner.

3) Paris MoU

The Paris Memorandum of Understanding on Port State Control (Paris MoU) has developed temporary guidance for its Member Authorities during the COVID-19 crisis. The guidance recognises that there is a need to apply flexibility under these special circumstances, as stated on its webpage on 26 Mar 2020.

As reported at, the UK’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), a member of Paris MoU, issued a statement confirming the indefinite suspension of PSC inspections and vessel surveys in this country, as well as its willingness to extend both vessel and seafarer certificates where necessary to keep cargo and lifeline ferry services operational.


USCG Marine Safety Information Bulletin (MSIB No. 09-20) dated 26 Mar 2020, informs that:

“The Coast Guard will not issue deficiencies or detain vessels for expired certificates, documents or mariner credentials until October 1, 2020.”

Operational considerations

Please refer to the 17 March 2020 Media Release of INTERCARGO titled “Coronavirus poses major challenges for seafarers on merchant ships from increasing restrictions imposed by port stateshere.

On 2 Mar 2020, the IMO Circular Letter No.4204/Add.3 informed of the Operational considerations for managing COVID-19 cases/outbreak onboard ships, prepared by WHO.

On 5 Mar 2020, another IMO Circular Letter No.4204/Add.4 informed of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Guidance for ship operators for the protection of the health of seafarers, prepared by the International Chamber of Shipping in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

WHO keeps updating the development on a webpage with Rolling updates on coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and a webpage Situation Dashboard.

With countries across the globe announcing new restrictions on ship visit and crew shore leave, it becomes a complex task to get a timely update of new restrictions. To help make this easier Wilhelmsen Ships Service has produced the online “Coronavirus – Global Port Restrictions Map”. By clicking on ports or countries on the map users can view restrictions in each location.

There is another useful webpage created by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at John Hopkins, with a summary of providing location and the number of cases. It shows a live real-time, interactive map of the spread of the virus.

Many P&I Clubs collect and maintain all relevant updates of regional requirements to prevent and restrict the speed of the COVID-19 virus. Members are invited to contact the Clubs of their fleet for additional advice.


An IMO Circular Letter No.4204/Add.1, dated 19 Feb 2020, urges Flag State authorities, port State authorities and control regimes, companies and shipmasters to cooperate, in the current context of the outbreak, to ensure that, where appropriate, passengers can be embarked and disembarked, cargo operations can occur, ships can enter and depart shipyards for repair and survey, stores and supplies can be loaded, certificates can be issued and crews can be exchanged. The principles of avoiding unnecessary restrictions or delay on port entry to ships, persons and property on board are contained in articles I and V and section 6 of the annex to IMO’s Facilitation Convention.

References in drafting a Contingency Plan Onboard – full list of the IMO Circular Letters on Coronavirus (COVID-19):

Circular Letter No.4203 – Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV), 31 Jan 2020

Circular Letter No.4203/Add.1 – Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV), 13 Feb 2020

Circular Letter No.4204 – Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV), 31 Jan 2020

Circular Letter No.4204/Add.1 – COVID-19 – Implementation and enforcement of relevant IMO instruments, 19 Feb 2020

Circular Letter No.4204/Add.2 – Joint Statement IMO-WHO on the Response to the COVID-19 Outbreak, 21 Feb 2020

Circular Letter No.4204/Add.3 – Operational considerations for managing COVID-19 cases/outbreak on board ships, 3 Mar 2020 (WHO Advice, 24 Feb 2020)

Circular Letter No.4204/Add.4 – ICS Coronavirus (COVID-19) Guidance for ship operators for the protection of the health of seafarers, 6 Mar 2020

Circular Letter No.4204-Add.5 – Coronavirus (Covid-19) – Guidance Relating To The Certification Of Seafarers

Circular Letter No.4221 – the Guidance on the prevention and control of COVID-19 on board.