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Caution around revised Chinese port crew change rules

While official policy authorises crew change at Chinese ports, though ports have been cautious about its implementation, shore leave remains restricted.



2 February 2023
A computerised representation of the COVID 19 virus
COVID-19 continues to impact crew change and shore leave at Chinese ports. Credit: CDC

Although the Chinese government has lifted restrictions on crew change, confusion about these changes abound – with some ports still enforcing the requirements imposed almost three years ago when the pandemic began. The country-wide decision to reinstate pre-COVID procedures took effect on 8 January, and seafarers disembarking at Chinese ports should, in theory, no longer be subject to on-arrival testing nor quarantine before repatriation.

Crew are, however, required to have a Nucleic Acid Test 48 hours before their vessel departs the last port of call before entering China. Authorities also accept negative Rapid Antigen Flow Tests, accompanied by a health declaration, for those unable to comply due to travel schedules.

Although the decision has been cautiously welcomed, a circular issued by Huatai Marine Services on 19 January 2023 advised that certain ports, such as Qingdao port and ports in Guangxi and Guangdong Provinces, were still enforcing restrictions despite lifting them in principle. In addition, they confirmed that the nationwide prohibition of shore leave was still in effect, likely in an effort to combat the recent surge in the XBB.1.5 and Omicron COVID variants.

In contrast to the gradual reopening of ports in China, several countries including India, Japan and South Korea have reintroduced testing requirements and restrictions for seafarers disembarking or taking shore leave from ships arriving directly from China. This may be due to concerns that infection rates may be higher following celebrations during Lunar New Year and China’s relaxing of restrictions entailed in its zero-COVID policy in December 2022.

Chinese manufacturers and hauliers currently face chronic staff shortages, leading to freight booking cancellations and congestion increasing at the ports of Qingdao, Ningbo, Shanghai and Shenzhen. However, per the National Health Commission (NHC) in China, the wave of infections has begun to significantly decrease in major cities. This suggests that the outbreak may be on the wane and manufacturing output and port operations will slowly resume to normal capacity.

Despite the recent surge in cases, shipowners and operators are not expected to be seriously impacted by restrictions, with lessons from the pandemic in place at major ports to manage crew change risks.