While merchant shipping crews who arrive in Victoria are generally banned under pandemic restrictions from disembarking to stroll the streets, one group of seafarers has no choice but to be detained, hustled to shore and locked up under guard.
They are the crew members of ships that carry pine logs to China from the south-west Victorian port of Portland.
As West Australian authorities struggle to deal with an outbreak of COVID-19 on the livestock carrier Al Kuwait, which arrived last week in the port of Fremantle, Victorian health authorities have cracked down on seafarers who arrive in Victorian ports.
Despite national protocols that allow crews to factor into their quarantine period the amount of time they have been at sea, the Port of Portland states the Victorian department has ordered that all crew members must observe 14 days of quarantine from the time their ship arrives in port, no matter how long they have been at sea.
“The Victorian Department of Health and Human Services have advised the Australian Border Force that all maritime crew WILL adhere to the following restrictions,” a statement on the port’s website declares.
“Crew members will be required to undergo an additional 14 days of isolation commencing on arrival into Victoria.”
This effectively means seafarers cannot take shore leave, because virtually no ships stay in port for 14 days or more.
But the rule presented a dilemma for the Port of Portland, which specialises in exporting timber products.
Chinese authorities will not accept timber logs unless the ships exporting them from Australia are first fumigated to kill insects or other potential pests or pathogens.
That requires log ships to be isolated at a berth away from other vessels in Portland harbour while specialists treat the vessel with the fumigant gas, a process that takes two days.
Crew members − typically there are about nine to 14 of them on each ship − are removed from the log carriers during fumigation to ensure they are not exposed to the gas.
Until coronavirus panic spread across the world, such seafarers, most of them from Asia or the Indian subcontinent, were free to wander the town, shop for food, clothes and mementos, and choose their own overnight accommodation.
Now the log-ship crews get no further than the bottom of their vessel’s gangway before they are detained by officials from the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services.
Each seafarer undergoes a temperature check. Mini buses from the Portland Mission to Seafarers are used to transport the crew to pre-arranged on-shore accommodation − either a hotel or serviced apartments.
The chief executive of the Port of Portland, Greg Tremewen, said the operation was taken very seriously.
Even though many of the ships had been at sea for 18 or 20 days, well beyond the normal quarantine period, the seafarers were escorted directly from their ships to their hotel rooms and locked in, he said.
Nine crew taken were from the most recent ship to be fumigated. Six security guards were employed to ensure no one tried to leave their hotel rooms, and meals were delivered directly to them.
“When the fumigation of the ship is completed, the crew are taken from their rooms and transported directly back to their ship, where they are given another temperature check before they go back on board,” Mr Tremewen said.
About 300 ships berth at Portland each year. The majority carry to China or other Asian ports timber products such as woodchips or logs from the extensive plantations in south-west Victoria and south-east South Australia.
Source: The Age