UK government ministers are in discussions to repatriate some 4,000 foreign seafarers stuck on five cruise ships lying otherwise empty near the port of Southampton as coronavirus restrictions hamper their return.
The conditions for the staff on the vessels are causing particular concern because some crew members on one vessel, P&O Cruises’ Azura, have tested positive for Covid-19.
The problems at Southampton are the latest in a series of crises for cruise shipping lines since the start of the coronavirus outbreak. More than 700 passengers aboard the Carnival Corporation’s Diamond Princess tested positive for the disease in February and March, with 12 dying. There have also been stand-offs between shipping lines and governments in Australia and the US state of Florida over whether vessels with infected people aboard should be allowed to dock.
The personnel on board the vessels at Southampton are mostly Indian nationals, unable to travel home because of their country’s extremely tough rules restricting movement into and around the country.
The Florida-based Carnival said there were between 800 and 1,000 crew on each of four vessels operated by its brands moored in the port of Southampton — P&O Cruises’ Azura, Ventura and Britannia and Cunard’s Queen Victoria. Tui, the Germany-based travel group, said around half the 550 crew remained aboard the Marella Celebration, a vessel that it operates, anchored near Southampton.
Another vessel, Cunard’s Queen Mary 2, is due to join those in port when it arrives from Australia in mid-April.
All the vessels have been taken out of service because of the risk of coronavirus outbreaks among passengers and crew.
Carnival Cruises said it had developed a repatriation plan and that it had already sent home crew members who were able to travel and did not have critical roles on board the ships.
“We are actively working to repatriate as many crew as possible but, as we employ over 60 nationalities on board our ships and with travel restrictions in place for many of the home countries of our crew, we are fully considering the health, safety and wellbeing of each crew member as part of their repatriation plan,” Carnival said.
The company added that at the end of last week it had tested some members of the crew of the Azura and “a few” of the tests had come back positive. It had written to the last passengers to disembark from the vessel — in Barbados on March 20 and 21 — to warn them about the results, it said.
Tui said it was “working hard” to repatriate the remaining crew members from the Marella Celebration and that there were no cases of Covid-19 on board.
Hotel closures and the amount of space on board meant the vessels remained the most suitable accommodation for the large number of people involved.
Both companies indicated that crew members had been moved out of the more cramped crew cabins into vacant passenger cabins, to reduce the risk of a spread of infection. Carnival said crew who did not have critical roles on its vessels were not working.
Coronavirus has hampered crew changes on many forms of shipping, with some cargo shipping companies suspending crew changes to reduce the risk of bringing Covid-19 on board.
The UK’s Department for Transport made no formal comment about the seafarers’ fate. But an official indicated ministers were in discussion with the High Commission of India in London about repatriating crew members. The High Commission did not respond to a request for comment.
Harry Theochari, chairman of Maritime UK, an industry group that has been involved in discussions about repatriating the crews, said the issue of the seafarers’ fate was “primarily a humanitarian one”.
“Get these poor people back to their families,” he said.
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