Comment on coronavirus: How will UK ports be affected?

With vessels and passengers facing restrictions and even quarantine as the shipping and cruise industries address the coronavirus outbreak, Tony McDonach and Colin Lavelle, legal directors at Hill Dickinson, consider the possible implications for UK ports in this special commentary. The threats to the UK port industry from coronavirus are not immediate but they are nevertheless real. The number of reported cases in the UK is low (9 at the time of writing), but what do we know so far?

The primary causes of transfer are thought to be coughing or touch so isolating patients should slow the progress of the disease. However, unlike SARS or Ebola, which were contagious only when symptoms appeared, there is a concern that coronavirus victims may be infectious even before symptoms manifest themselves. The nature of international movements, with ships travelling from East Asia to Europe, ships’ crew coming from all over the world and the nature of the cruise industry[1], with passengers flying to the UK to board ships at UK ports and then being highly concentrated on board, mean that the possibility of a serious outbreak in a UK port cannot be ruled out.

Current UK government advice identifies mainland China, Thailand, Japan, Republic of Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and Macau as places of special concern for the virus. These areas have been identified because of the volume of air travel from affected areas and the number of reported cases. The restrictions imposed by the Chinese state have set a strong precedent.

It would be a brave state or business that did not take the strongest possible action to restrict the disease. From 10 February in the UK, individuals may now be forcibly quarantined where there is reason to believe they may have the condition. What now for UK ports?

The case of Diamond Princess, quarantined at anchorage off the port of Yokohama, gives an indication of what might happen – (Princess Cruises has now confirmed guests will be allowed to disembark to complete their quarantine period on shore[2]). The discovery of cases, or an outbreak, on board a ship at a UK port might lead to that ship being quarantined. The berth would then be out of action for the duration of the quarantine with the inevitable loss of income from other ships.

While the relevant ship-owner would theoretically be responsible to the port for the services being utilised and provided, and/or the government may provide some support, there is nevertheless a risk of significant commercial loss being suffered by the port depending on the relevant terms agreed between the port and the ship-owner. Given the nature of such an incident, it will be important for ports to act quickly, liaise closely with the authorities and limit potential areas of loss. In this regard, it is possible for ports to apply to move vessels to alternative or lay-by berths where available.

While it is difficult to see how the virus might lead to the total quarantine of a large port, where an infected ship might be isolated away from other ships, that is in the context of the current rates of infection. However, the taking of proper precautions and protective measures can ensure that there is no risk of infection to crew and that the port remains safe for the purpose of charter-parties. Measures taken during both the MERS and Ebola outbreaks meant that numerous ports remained open despite being affected by the outbreak.

However, there is likely to be a cost to such precautions. [Nevertheless] it would need a significant increase in the scale of the outbreak before large ports are likely to be deemed unsafe.

Visit hilldickinson.com[3] for more information.

References

  1. ^ cruise industry (www.cruisetradenews.com)
  2. ^ will be allowed to disembark to complete their quarantine period on shore (www.cruisetradenews.com)
  3. ^ hilldickinson.com (www.hilldickinson.com)

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