The Belgian government has agreed to prioritise Covid-19 vaccines for seafarers on its vessels.

Work will now begin on introducing the scheme "soon", according to the Royal Belgian Shipowners' Association (RBSA), which told TradeWinds this is the first such scheme in the world.

The association said it was pleased with the decision after crews' special circumstances were taken into account.

"I believe this is a very important step for the seafarers who have shown such resilience and commitment over the last year, despite having to stay on board their ships for long periods," RBSA managing director Wilfried Lemmens told TradeWinds.

"The government listened well to the arguments that this needed to be done and understood it was important. Now we need the ports and others in the business to help make sure all seafarers are protected."

The country's inter-ministerial conference on public health has now agreed that a task force will meet over the next week to discuss an action plan drawn up by RBSA and the Directorate General of Shipping.

Cannot just go home at night

RBSA said irregular work patterns mean crews stay on ships for a number of weeks or months overseas, followed by a number of weeks or months in Belgium or their home country.

"Sailors cannot just go home in the evening," the association said.

"It is important to act quickly on the corona vaccination for seafarers for them to facilitate safe cross-border traffic, because seafarers must be timely and must be able to travel to our country without any hindrance as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic."

Vincent Van Quickenborne, Belgium's deputy prime minister and minister for the North Sea, said the country had agreed a new arrangement in November to ensure crew changes happened more smoothly.

"Now we make sure that they [seafarers] can do their job in safe circumstances," he said. "We offer them security."

Earlier in April, InterManager president Mark O'Neil called for shipmanagers to go it alone on seafarer vaccines after an "extremely frustrating" meeting with the International Maritime Organization.

Sourcing their own vaccines

The Columbia Shipmanagement chief executive said vessel managers must now source their own jabs, as progress through national governments is too slow.

IMO is working with the World Health Organization, UNICEF vaccines access agency Covax, and member states to set up various hubs for seafarer vaccinations.

But O'Neil said it became clear during talks that even the countries that are furthest down the road with their vaccination programmes, such as the UK, would probably only have jabs available for crew members in the last quarter of 2021.

Earlier in April, Filipino seafarers were brought higher in the country’s list of vaccine priority groups as their work is considered crucial in keeping the economy alive, the department of transportation said.

They were previously classed as "other essential workers" or "overseas Filipino workers", but are now deemed frontline personnel in essential sectors.