One of the better outcomes of the Covid-19 crew-change crisis has been to see unity of purpose at the very top of the maritime field. Leaders of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) and the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) have been speaking with one voice.

There are other examples of cooperation between those who, in the past, have often sat on different sides of the negotiating table.

There is a growing acceptance among the more enlightened ship managers, charterers and shippers that joint action is vital to sort out — and pay for — crew changes during the pandemic.

The impassioned plea on page 12 from the Secret Captain highlights the problems of seafarers being unable to disembark.

A distressing picture is painted of the problems his crew faces and how his vessel’s safety is under threat.

There is still a lot to do — at least until a credible vaccine is widely available. Some governments have acted decisively but others have not.

Some Pacific Islands that are Covid-free are reluctant to admit anyone who could have been in contact with the virus.

Some countries do not have the systems to cope with quarantine needs, while international flights home are in short supply.

Some shipowners seem happy to keep an existing crew on board in the hope the pandemic passes soon — as the Secret Captain suggests.

And I too share the view of Euronav's Hugo De Stoop and others that poor industry relations with governments that have hampered crew-change policy changes can partly be blamed on a lack of transparency and an over-enthusiasm for tax avoidance by the shadier parts of the shipowning sector.

Beyond blame

But there are some genuine problems that cannot be blamed on shipowners or governments.

Undoubtedly in the run up to Christmas, it is harder to find seafarers willing to leave home and take a chance getting stuck on board a vessel.

There is still no universal acceptance that ship crews are “essential workers”, even though world trade stops without them.

Led by Indonesia, this issue is being brought by the maritime sector in front of the United Nations General Assembly early next month.

No one really knows how many seafarers worldwide have been stuck on their vessels way beyond their contracted time — 400,000?

There has been unprecedented cooperation between all parties and I am hoping the links created can be used to tackle other challenges

ICS secretary general Guy Platten

It was not surprising that ITF general secretary Steve Cotton told the UN High-Level Side Event on Covid in late September that the seafaring workforce and the international shipping system were at “breaking point”.

Things have improved a bit since then — but not that much. Among steps forward was the setting up of an enhanced quarantine and testing programme in Manila.

The prototype project, jointly organised with the International Maritime Employers' Council (IMEC), has involved renting 300 “secure isolation” rooms at two top hotels in the city.

The Norwegian Shipowners' Association is separately doing its own scheme in Manila to try to guarantee Covid-free crews.

The ITF/IMEC scheme is using blockchain technology to make sure the Covid test results and certificates are tamper-proof.

This comes amid isolated claims in some parts of the world that bogus Covid-free certificates are circulating.

The better side to all this is the fact that leaders of organisations such as the ICS and ITF are in almost daily contact with each other.

This has led to traditional barriers breaking down, according to ICS secretary general Guy Platten.

“There has been unprecedented cooperation between all parties and I am hoping the links created can be used to tackle other challenges," he said.

Digital dawn

“The need to decarbonise the industry to tackle climate change has not gone away and we need to find [collective] ways of dealing with this.”

The use of new technology being used to tackle the impact of Covid could also help wider innovation in a notoriously conservative industry.

It will be surprising if the necessary maritime energy transition is not aided — if not partly driven — by the adoption of digital solutions.

In nature, big storms bring down old trees and can leave what looks like devastation in their path. But they can also give physical space to young saplings to grow, hastening renewal and even more vigorous growth.

Could the massive disruption of Covid present a silver lining for shipping, accelerating a new era of innovation and cooperation?