UK charity Human Rights at Sea (HRAS) has retracted and apologised for a statement it issued this week criticising the ITF's call for seafarers stranded by coronavirus lockdowns to down tools and walk off ships.

The move came after a flurry of criticism on social media led by Helen Kelly, head of communications at seafarers' union Nautilus International.

She called HRAS' broadside "poorly judged."

HRAS had called the ITF's campaign irresponsible and a "vigilante" action that could harm the most vulnerable in society by endangering the global supply chain.

The ITF chose not to respond to the criticism, but plenty of others did online.

Charity sorry for tone of criticism

HRAS and its board of trustees said on Thursday it was sorry for "the language, the tone and the criticism."

"During the Covid-19 pandemic the charity has been primarily supporting seafarers, highlighting the challenges they face," it added.

"The charity’s remit, however, is wider than this, with a focus and mission that includes fishers, business and human rights as well as migrants and refugees, all of which will continue to be at the centre of Human Rights at Sea’s on-going work."

It said it supports any action that is a genuine attempt to help seafarers wherever they are.

Some relaxation has occurred in changeovers in the last three weeks, but shipmanagement group Anglo-Eastern Univan has only been able to repatriate 1,500 of the 16,000 seafarers it has on vessels, its chief executive Bjorn Hojgaard said at the London Capital Link forum on Tuesday.

ITF general secretary Stephen Cotton said at the same event: "Our fear is that when we have had the best collaboration I’ve seen in 27 years, still we can’t get the right people to make the right decisions."

Cotton stressed that the ITF does not hold shipowners responsible for the difficulties in changing crews over due to the pandemic, but from 16 June is supporting seafarers in starting to enforce their right to stop working and return home.