In an exclusive interview with SAFETY4SEA, Revd Canon Andrew Wright, Secretary General, The Mission to Seafarers, notes that the pandemic brought much stress and anxiety to seafarers’ life, which has undermined mental well-being.
In addition, financial issues for seafarers’ families who face uncertainty and many restrictions are emerging as a major problem. In this context, the organization, along with the UK P&I Club, has launched a new service to empower seafarers and their families to manage their mental health through applying financial coping strategies. Furthermore, Revd Wright applauds industry’s progress on managing COVID implications so far, highlighting that collaboration is key to ensure a better and safer future for seafarers.
SAFETY4SEA: What has been the biggest challenge during the COVID-19 outbreak from your perspective?
Andrew Wright: We have seen a huge increase in the need to support seafarers during the COVID-19 pandemic and this unprecedented challenge has required an unprecedented response. One of our core provisions for seafarers are our port-based welfare services and they are at the heart of the support provided to seafarers, from SIM cards to allow them to contact home, to currency exchange services.
COVID-19 has seriously undermined the ability to deliver that service. However, I am very pleased that we have been able to sustain a strong measure of that service – particularly through “distanced” gangway visits and the delivery of very important personal supplies to crew, many of whom have had shore leave cancelled. We have also been able to respond to special requests for visits to ships where crew are experiencing difficulty or trauma.
Our face to face work has continued then in a necessarily limited way. In that context our digital support work has become particularly important. Crucially, we have developed our digital “chat to a chaplain” service to provide seafarers with a remote opportunity to access the support they need, 24/7, wherever they are in the world.
We are now working to reopen our full range of services as fast as we can in as many places as we can and our buses to be able to operate safely in the changed environment. PPE is being arranged for our port staff and volunteers, to ensure crew and frontline teams are protected. Our Seafarer Centres are being adapted in accordance with best practice.
Additionally to safely transport coronavirus-free seafarers and to keep them safe and healthy, vehicles will be adapted, including screens between the driver and passengers, plus provision of sanitisers and antiseptics. This has already been undertaken in Manila where the Mission has been called upon by the Government to transport seafarers to and from their homes. Making changes in ports will allow seafarers safe support whenever they most need it.
S4S: How has the pandemic impacted seafarers so far in several aspects?
A.Wr.: Clearly, the difficulties and uncertainties around transit and crew change have caused great hardship, both for crew unable to finish contract and those unable to commence work. Many on cruise vessels have lost work and suffered repatriation issues. As shore leave has become more difficult, if not impossible and welfare access to ships has been restricted, seafarers’ worries and anxieties have become heightened during this crisis.
A lack of technology and wifi access on board some ships leaves seafarers feeling even more isolated from friends, family and loved ones at home, particularly during a pandemic when they may have family members suffering from COVID-19.
There is much stress and anxiety, which has undermined mental well-being. All these issues have been very apparent in our contacts with seafarers and in feedback to our Seafarers Happiness Index. One Regional Director has commented that “alongside the pandemic crisis has come a mental health crisis”,
The pandemic has been particularly isolating and challenging in so many areas. For example, in the Philippines, in a situation mirrored elsewhere, lockdown has been very strict. That has meant those seafarers who have made it back into the country have often been trapped in Manila, initially quarantined but often unable to get back to homes in the provinces. Similarly, many cruise ships, having disembarked passengers elsewhere, have travelled to the Philippines to discharge crew, many of whom are losing their jobs.
S4S: Are seafarers serving on board cargo vessels safer from COVID-19 than the general population?
A.Wr.: Levels of risk and safety change in each individual circumstances. This is not something we can predict or foresee. Safety is determined by the ports, potential changes of crew, standards on board, access to testing and whether the vessel needs external party maintenance or any other varying factor. We must all be putting as many measures in place as possible to ensure the highest levels of safety and protection. Generally, ships are relatively safe environments, but we cannot underplay the strain brought by uncertainty and lack of control over one’s own destiny.
S4S: What issues related to seafarers need urgent tackling and how your ‘WeCare’ wellbeing programme may help?
A.Wr.: We have seen the huge impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on our seafarers in terms of the physical and emotional strain of being trapped onboard or on shore, away from loved ones and without contact. Additionally, without crew changes, many seafarers and their families have had their financial security shattered, leaving them in a very precarious position.
At the Mission to Seafarers we provide welfare services to ensure seafarers and their families can prosper. This is why, with the help of the UK P&I Club, we have launched WeCare. As part of WeCare, the Financial Wellbeing course is transitioning to a digital offering and explores links between money, relationships and mental health and wellbeing. This course empowers seafarers and their families to manage their mental health through applying financial coping strategies such as budgeting, saving and risk assessments. This will help those who have had their financial circumstances impacted by the pandemic and accelerate progress for themselves and their families.
S4S: What do ship owners need to keep in mind in order seafarers serving onboard their ships to feel supported and gain confidence when it comes to their finances, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic?
A.Wr.: The Mission to Seafarers applauds the very many shipping companies who have worked so hard to protect and support seafarers during this time. Many ship owners recognise that happy seafarers ensure a safer and more efficient vessel. Significant work has gone on to provide information about helplines and even access to on-line counselling – as well as to improve employee assistance programmes. However, issues remain. The current circumstances have highlighted that many seafarers are still without access to internet on board ships, hugely impacting their ability to utilise its services, or contact loved ones at home while isolated at sea or quarantined on vessels.
Financial issues for families who either cannot receive the money from seafarers isolated on board, or those unable to start contracts due to restrictions are emerging as a major problem. This is an immense challenge and simply adds to the uncertainty for seafarers and their families, both now and for the coming months. We hope to see more seafarers able to access our centres in port which we are adapting to ensure it is safe to do so, to provide financial advice and currency exchange. Additionally, we are moving our training courses to an online digital service which will ensure seafarers have access to free training around the world without having to attend in person.
S4S: Do you believe there is necessary for the industry’s stakeholders to discuss further and consider effective measures of supporting seafarers in other fronts as well? How your organization may assist towards that end?
A.Wr.: Collaboration is key to ensure a better and safer future for our seafarers. With strong partnerships and industry-wide progress, we can deliver a safer and more productive working environment for seafarers. We always welcome partnerships between different organisations to ensure we are united in reaching our shared goal of a safer industry for our seafarers.
In particular, the current circumstances have highlighted that many seafarers are still without access to internet on board, hugely impacting their ability to utilise support services or contact loved ones at home, particularly when they are at sea or quarantined on vessels.
We plan to open up communications by providing more mobile Mifi units, as part of our Flying Angel campaign. Chaplains will ‘lend’ the units to ships arriving in port to create local wifi networks which will enable crews to keep in touch with those they love. It is all about ensuring seafarers have access to digital training, feel supported and have channels to protect their mental wellbeing.
S4S: Is there anything you would like to see operators do differently or better with regards to wellbeing issues onboard amid this pandemic?
A.Wr.: Ships in port have not been able to access our seafarer centres yet but we are adapting to receive seafarers in a safe and COVID-19 clear environment, as part of our Flying Angel Campaign. This major fundraising campaign will deliver a number of vital projects that are part of our COVID-19 response. This includes each of the 121 Flying Angel Centres receiving a deep clean before opening, as well as having screens fitted to protect staff and seafarers. If the seafarers can have access to this safe and protected environment, this will significantly help their happiness and wellbeing.
Since COVID-19, the charity has been working in partnership with like-minded organisations to make the case for seafarers across the world, locally and internationally. In particular, the Mission has focused on recognition for seafarers as essential workers, the facilitation of crew change and proper protection for safety and well-being. If more companies, organisations, and governments can facilitate safe crew changes, this will ensure seafarers are being treated under the key worker status they deserve. We also need our own front-line teams to be recognised as essential workers, with port and ship access supported and ensured.
S4S: On the occasion of 2020 Day of the Seafarer, what is your key message to the industry?
A.Wr.: The 2020 Day of the Seafarer was like no other before. Seafarers have always faced challenges within the industry but during the COVID-19 pandemic, they have suffered truly acute difficulties while maintaining the global supply chain.
Our key message to the industry this year is to call on governments and authorities to facilitate transit arrangements. Those seafarers needing to end their contracts and those seeking to join new ships must be able to do so safely and efficiently. Not only have those stuck on board suffered with almost a year out at sea and in some cases even longer, those at home have suffered financially, impacting their families and their future. The industry has made huge progress on this over the past few months, but more needs to be done to ensure we are protecting our international key workers now more than ever before.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of SAFETY4SEA and are for information sharing and discussion purposes only.
Andrew Wright has been the Secretary General at the Mission of Seafarers since 2013, overseeing the charity and providing overall strategy and direction. Before joining the Mission, he worked at the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen, as Senior Chaplain and Director of Operations. He has also worked as a curator in one of Liverpool’s most deprived estates, served parishes in Carlisle and Wigan, and been a Chaplain of St Edward’s school in Oxford.