In an exclusive interview with SAFETY4SEA, Seafarer UK’s Chief Executive Officer, Catherine Spencer, notes the pandemic has negatively impacted seafarers’ mental health and wellbeing. Although there are helpful resources to support them, many appear to be trying hard to overcome what is being described as a ‘crew change crisis. Hence, Seafarers UK has released additional £2 million from reserves to support seafarers in need and their families.
SAFETY4SEA: How has the pandemic impacted seafarers so far in several aspects?
Catherine Spencer : Seafarers have been prevented from disembarking at most ports on global trade routes, denying them access to medical and other facilities ashore. Many seafarers have been compelled to work extended contracts because it has proved to be impossible for them to be repatriated when their contracts end and/or for replacement crew to travel from their home countries to start work on ships.
S4S: Are seafarers serving on board cargo vessels safer from COVID-19 than the general population?
C.Sp.: Seafarers on cargo vessels are effectively permanently quarantined! Prevented from disembarkation (see above) and with virtually all ship visitors – including port chaplains and pastoral workers – denied access, seafarers are unlikely to be exposed to the COVID-19 virus.
S4S: How seafarers can look after their health and wellbeing in the COVID-19 era? What should they keep in mind?
C.Sp.: There are helpful resources available for seafarers where they have internet access, including those offered by ISWAN – see https://www.seafarerhelp.org/en/help
S4S: How happy are you with industry’s progress so far to raise awareness about seafarers’ health? Are there any issues that industry needs to further address? How your organization may help?
C.Sp.: Employers of seafarers appear to be trying hard to overcome what is being described as a ‘crew change crisis’. But their efforts are hampered by restrictions imposed by national governments, including those of the home countries of many seafarers. Even where seafarers are deemed to be ‘key workers’, they still encounter many obstacles when they attempt to travel from or to ships. Seafarers UK is unable to help in this area, as we fund other charities and organisations that provide frontline services to seafarers. See www.seafarers.uk
S4S: Have you noticed any trend(s) during the last years with respect to seafarers’ mental and physical health?
C.Sp.: Seafarers’ mental and physical health has been negatively impacted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Very limited access to medical care ashore is a major problem. Mental health issues are resulting in seafarers becoming unfit for work. And in some cases, seafarers have taken their own lives.
S4S: Is there anything you would like to see operators do differently or better with regards to wellbeing issues onboard amid this pandemic?
C.Sp.: It has become clear that seafarers should not be compelled to work beyond their contract end dates. It is not in the best interests of seafarers – or indeed their employers – for crew members to be working when they are extremely fatigued and suffering from anxiety.
S4S: Do you have any new projects/ plans on the agenda that you would like to share?
C.Sp.: Seafarers UK has released £2 million from reserves to support seafarers as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is in addition to the charity’s usual annual allocation of £2 million to support seafarers in need and their families.
S4S: Following the 2020 Day of the Seafarer, what is your key message to the industry?
C.Sp.: ‘Day of the Seafarer’ had very limited impact in the UK. Initiatives like ‘Seafarers Awareness Week’ in July and our ‘Fly the Red Ensign for Merchant Navy Day’ campaign (today, 3 September) are much more effective at raising awareness of our ongoing dependence on seafarers.
The views presented hereabove are only those of the author and not necessarily those of SAFETY4SEA and are for information sharing and discussion purposes only.
Catherine Spencer is the new Chief Executive of Seafarers UK from July 2019. She has spent the last three years as Director of Communications and Change Management at icddrb, a complex international health research organisation based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Prior to this, Catherine spent seven years at the Army Families Federation in senior management positions. During her tenure at icddrb Catherine worked with key donors, technical experts, government departments and international organisations, whilst playing a pivotal role in developing and implementing the charity’s organisational strategy. Catherine was also a Trustee and council member of a wide range of grant-giving and advocacy organisations.