Fears of the risk of contracting the Coronavirus at the Port of Tauranga has sparked calls for virus testing of crew members on visiting ships. Sandra Conchie reports.
Maritime officials are calling for the crews of ships visiting the Port of Tauranga to be tested for coronavirus if they have recently visited a country where an outbreak has occurred.
But a spokesperson for the Port of Tauranga said testing was not required as the Ministry of Health already had "robust" screening processes in place.
• Coronavirus: Bay of Plenty doctors say call ahead if you have symptoms
• Coronavirus: Bay of Plenty Regional Council staff work from home to test response
• Premium - Coronavirus: Bay of Plenty Chinese restaurants struggle with customer drop off
• Premium - Coronavirus - What does it mean for Bay of Plenty people?
A representative from Mount Maunganui-based stevedoring company SSA New Zealand, who asked not to named, said workers were concerned. He said he believed crews that had visited countries where outbreaks had occurred should not be able to disembark before being tested.
"The potential risk is very real, especially if there are no routine health checks of these visiting crew members," the representative said.
"I'd like to see a ban on the crew on ships visiting from China and other infected countries being allowed to get off until they are tested for the virus as an added precaution."
A representative from ISO Stevedoring Limited declined to comment.
Peter Harvey, the President of the Tauranga branch of the Maritime Union, said so far there was no existing coronavirus hazard identified at the Port.
"But given the potential risk, I do believe we do need to at least have a conversation to discuss with the Port officials whether extra safeguards are needed.
"There is currently no blanket ban on ships from China or other affected countries coming here and whether that situation will change in the future is unknown," he said.
Harvey said under Maritime law visiting ship captains had an obligation to inform Port officials of any suspected cases onboard before sailing into any port.
"Any crew member who has any of the symptoms of the virus is also required to inform the ship's captain," he said.
"We're really relying on the ship's captains to do the right thing here.
"But at the end of the day whether it is an airport or a shipping port it is no different, and the same safeguards need to be in place to minimise any risk of contracting the virus."
Harvey said any extra safety measures needed to be "practicable and workable" and not be an over-reaction as businesses affected by the outbreak were "already hurting".
Mount Maunganui and Tauranga Maritime Union secretary Selwyn Russell said the port workers' concerns had not been raised with him or the union.
"It's a very grey area, as to date the outbreak in New Zealand has largely been contained.
"But given the outbreak is now widespread worldwide I believe it is time to fully test crew on board any ship which has visited one of the countries with confirmed cases within the 14-day incubation period," Russell said.
"Once the horse has bolted it will be too late. People are dying and look at Italy, there have 16 million people contained in isolation. It makes sense to test crew members now.
"We have an obligation to do so to protect our borders and our people just like other countries are doing around the world," Russell said.
New Zealand has five confirmed cases, while Italy has more than 7350 confirmed cases and more than 360 of the world's approximately 3800 deaths.
Port of Tauranga chief operating officer Leonard Sampson said the Health Ministry's "quite robust" screening processes, included pre-arrival notifications within 24 hours of expected arrival by the captain of a ship.
"All cruise and cargo ships coming here must strictly follow the Ministry's regulations regarding the health status of people on board, and these rules are administered by the public health unit of the Bay of Plenty District Health Board," he said.
Sampson said because of the Covid-19 outbreak, ship captains must also declare whether the ship or anyone else onboard has been in a Covid-19 hot spot within 14 days.
"In this unlikely scenario, those people would be banned from coming ashore.
"Within 24 hours of arrival the ship's captain must advise if there is anyone ill on board, and the ship would not be allowed to berth unless the public health staff were satisfied there was no risk," he said.
Cruise Lines International Association members were currently denying boarding for crew and passengers that visited or transited through China, Hong Kong, Macau, South Korea, Iran and northern Italy within the past 14 days.
The ban also applied to those who have been in contact with anyone suspected or diagnosed as having Covid-19, he said.
"Anyone who has been in Japan or the rest of Italy are subject to additional checks before they are allowed to board," Sampson said.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the health response would play a "critical" part in the economic response to the outbreak.
Travel restrictions would continue for another seven days, and health officials now had the powers to quarantine entire ships and planes if they had concerns about Covid-19 cases on board.
Medical Officer of Health for Toi Te Ora Public Health Dr Phil Shoemack said maritime quarantine procedures were well established in Tauranga, and every ship which arrived at the Port was required to go through these procedures.
All vessels, including cargo, container, fishing, and cruise ships, which arrive in New Zealand from an overseas port must follow processes under the Health Act 1956 and the Health (Quarantine) Regulations 1983.
"This process is known as requesting pratique, which essentially means a licence to interact with New Zealand," Shoemack said.
As part of this process, ship masters must advise the health authority at the local port of the health status on board and declare any deaths or illness.
"If there is no illness, then the vessel can arrive in New Zealand. An update on this status is provided again as the ship comes into berth. If there are symptoms or conditions of concern, health authorities can refuse permission to berth and can prevent people from coming off the ship.
"If people are coming off a ship into a New Zealand port, it means this assessment has been undertaken and no threat to the health of the public has been detected," Shoemack said.
In the event that a vessel does not receive pratique, or pratique is granted while there is a disease on board, health authorities will work with other agencies and provide advice on how to interact safely with the ship.
Shoemack said in the event that a vessel did arrive with crew members or passengers showing symptoms of COVID-19, health authorities would work with the Port to implement their Public Health Emergency Contingency Plan.
"This plan covers scenarios including temporarily berthing a vessel to allow medical assessment, and resupplying vessels required to stay out at sea due to concerns."
When personal or private vessels arrive in New Zealand they are also inspected as part of usual border health procedures. If inspectors become aware of illness on any vessel they are required to contact the relevant local Medical Officer of Health or a health protection officer so that threat to public health can be evaluated and appropriate actions taken.