Belgium launches vaccination campaign for foreign seafarers
Following the successful COVID-19 vaccination campaign for Belgian seafarers that started on June 2nd, Belgium is going ahead boldly by moving a level up with a proposal by the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for the North Sea, Mr Vincent van Quickenborne, the Royal Belgian Shipowners’ Association (RBSA) and the Directorate-General of Shipping. The Vaccination Task Force and the Interministerial Conference on Public Health started a vaccination campaign from July 26th for all seafarers arriving at a Belgian port, regardless of their nationality. In order to give this hard-to-reach target group the maximum opportunity to be vaccinated, roving medical teams will go on board the vessels in the ports. This makes Belgium the first country in the world to provide vaccination for seafarers in this way.
Shipping is an essential mode of transport in the world of trade, and its continuity should be safeguarded. 90% of goods arrive in our country by sea.
Every year, more than 5,500 ships of various types dock in Belgium’s international ports, and around 80,000 seafarers in total work onboard. These seafarers live at sea in closed groups for extended periods of time – a precarious situation should there be a COVID-19 outbreak onboard. In addition, a large number of these seafarers come from countries where COVID-19 vaccination is currently insufficient or unavailable to them.
In order to give this hard-to-reach, often-forgotten group the maximum opportunity to be vaccinated, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for the North Sea Vincent Van Quickenborne, the Royal Belgian Shipowners’ Association and the Directorate-General Shipping of Federal Government’s Department for Mobility and Transport developed a plan of action. The Taskforce Vaccination and the Interministerial Conference on Public Health gave the green light for the vaccination plan for seafarers on board ships flying a foreign flag from 26 July onwards. This phase of the campaign is in no way performed at the expense of the current vaccinations for Belgians.
This concerns seafarers who are:
- staying and working on board a vessel docked in a Belgian port, or
- arriving in Belgium in order to board a vessel docked in a Belgian port (signing-on), or,
- leaving a vessel docked in a Belgian port in order to return to their home country via Belgium (signing-off).
Roving vaccination teams have been set up to go on board vessels in the ports to perform the inoculation under the supervision of Mediport and with the assistance of hospitals of the Gasthuisgroep Antwerpen. Taking into account the one-off visit to a Belgian port and the logistical challenges, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine – as a single-dose vaccine – is the most appropriate one.
With the vaccine, we are offering seafarers the certainty that they can carry out their profession under its unique circumstances in a safe manner, and that they are able to travel smoothly and securely to foreign ports.
Together with Germany and the United States, Belgium is one of the very few countries that are inoculating foreign seafarers, and the only one in the world to do so onboard vessels using mobile medical teams.
At the international level, Belgium is putting its weight behind a stronger policy for the maritime sector under the International Maritime Organization (IMO). With this decision, our country is making a contribution to the global fight against the virus to prevent it from spreading further. Belgium argues that other countries should also give priority to seafarers in order to facilitate their safe cross-border crossing.
Vincent Van Quickenborne, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for the North Sea said: “The fight against COVID-19 is not limited to Belgium, it is a global effort. Shipping, as a symbol of world trade, employs more than 1.5 million seafarers of diverse nationalities. For many of them, vaccines are out of reach in their own country and they are left exposed to the virus. In response to this global emergency, Belgium as a country with the world’s largest ports, is taking the lead in making vaccines accessible to all seafarers who arrive by sea. We call on other countries to likewise prioritise the vaccination of this essential group. Only then can the continuity of global trade be guaranteed.”
Dr Rob Verbist, port doctor of Mediport, is carrying out the vaccination drive in Antwerp together with his team explained: “All seafarers, regardless of nationality, will be provided with a single dose of Johnson & Johnson vaccine once their ship anchors at a Belgian port. The threshold for inoculation is further lowered through the administration of the vaccines directly onboard by our mobile team.”
Wilfried Lemmens, Managing Director of the Royal Belgian Shipowners’ Association (RBSA) commented: “With the success of the vaccination campaign’s first phase for Belgian seafarers, we can now roll out the second phase for all seafarers. We should not be blind to the fact that many seafarers of all nationalities have limited or no access to vaccination in their own country. It is also a humanitarian responsibility for all countries to provide the necessary protection against the virus for seafarers. This is an important sign of gratitude towards seafarers for keeping the supply chains up and running.”
Marc Beerlandt, Managing Director MSC Belgium added: “MSC would like to thank the Belgian government, the Royal Belgian Shipowners’ Association and the Antwerp maritime community for their critical support to the international seafarer community. The lack of access to COVID-19 vaccines is putting global supply chains under mounting pressure. With the global mobility of shipping crews already severely limited and hundreds of thousands of seafarers who have kept the world moving amid COVID-19 lockdowns while still stuck at sea, the lack of access to vaccines risks serious disruptions to global trade. It is gratifying that this initiative is being taken here, in Belgian ports. It is critical to world trade and supply chains that all governments recognise seafarers as key workers and prioritise them for vaccinations. This initiative perfectly demonstrates the importance that the Belgian government attaches to the Flemish port economy.”
Hilde Bruggeman, Director NAVES/Antwerp Shipping Association (ASV) said: “This timely initiative is greatly appreciated by shipowners. Shipowners have long been looking for solutions to have their crews vaccinated in a smooth and safe manner and this is what we can offer them right now. We will certainly reap the benefits of this in the long run. Not only will it become safer for everyone who has to go to work on board, we also run less risks of infected crews calling at our ports. This is definitely a win-win situation for shipowners, for our ports and for everyone involved.”