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Ports and COVID-19 – Expert Reaction

Two coronavirus cases have been detected at New Zealand ports in the past week.

One was a port worker who is suspected to have caught the disease while working on a ship in Auckland, and the other was a crew member on a ship docked in the Port of Tauranga who returned a weak positive test result.

The SMC asked experts to comment on pandemic port operations.

Dr Phil Shoemack, Medical Officer of Health, Toi Te Ora Public Health, comments:

“Public health units – most of which have a port in their region – have been very focused on the maritime ports as another risk point.

“By far our greatest risk is our airports, by virtue of the fact that so many people come in through them, and they get here from other nations pretty much within 24 hours at the most. Whereas people coming in by ship have been sailing for at least few days, and most of the ships arriving here have come from places more distant – in which case they’ve been at sea for many days. Therefore most people on a ship who develop symptoms will do that before they arrive here.

“New Zealand has instituted a pretty strict regime for ship crews. When a ship docks at its first port of call, no one can get off until they satisfy the requirements for the length of stay they’ve been at sea. The only exception is if one of the crew is heading home: they have to apply for permission, then they can get immediately off the ship, go straight to an airport, and fly home. At the moment there’s essentially no shore leave, so that reduces one risk of ship crews spreading the virus.

“The other risk is when port workers go on the ship to load, resupply the galley, inspect the ship, or whatever work it might be. The requirement for those port workers is they must wear personal protective equipment – mask and gloves – when they’re on the ship. As much as possible they must prevent themselves from getting closer than 2 metres for more than 15 minutes with any of the crew. Sometimes that’s not possible and they have to get closer than that, so we can’t eliminate the risk. But now we have routine swabbing for all port workers. Also any port worker turning up to work is under clear instructions that should they have any symptoms they’re to turn around and go home.

“There have been proposals to limit the number of international ports in New Zealand. This would not be technically difficult, and it would provide some limit on the number of port workers on ships, but they might be on the ships for longer. So you win some, you lose some in that respect. There would also be another consequence in lost revenue for the closed ports and port workers left without a job to do.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Dr Michael Wang, Lecturer in Supply Chain Management, Department of Business Information Systems, Auckland University of Technology, comments:

“New Zealand is an island country that is highly dependent on shipping. Air cargo and shipping are two transport modes which are used for New Zealand imports and exports. In fact, shipping plays a central role in international trade logistics: over 99 per cent of NZ’s international trade (by tonnage) is carried by sea.

“It came as no surprise to me to hear that a port worker has tested positive for the coronavirus in New Zealand, when the global pandemic is not under effective control. Experts have said as long as there is no vaccine and effective treatment for the Covid-19 on a global scale, the pandemic will continue for a long time in the future.

“Worldwide, air cargo and shipping logistics have been significantly affected by Covid-19. According to The International Air Cargo Association, global air cargo capacity is down by 35 per cent. Although current ocean freight capacity in New Zealand is at normal levels, the major ports in New Zealand, such as Ports of Auckland and the Port of Tauranga, have adopted various solutions to ensure health and safety in their operations.

“Industry and government should be paying more attention to the supply chain uncertainty and risk posed by Covid-19. We need to conduct more logistics research on this topic to support New Zealand businesses.

“I also suggest that NZ companies (importers and exporters) and ports work collaboratively to improve supply chain visibility, which would help all stakeholders to quickly respond to any Covid-19  incident across the international supply chain network.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Associate Professor Tiru Arthanari, Department of Information Systems and Operations Management, University of Auckland, comments:

“My work has been mainly on the productivity of container port operations. Generally, there is not much need for a port worker who is involved in quay crane operations – loading and unloading containers from ships – to come into contact with crew or travelers from abroad, on a container ship.

“Testing foreign ship crews and limiting the number of international ports obviously can reduce the chance of someone contracting Covid-19 from seafarers or crew. But should we go to that extent? The chances for contacting such suspected cases are low, at least in container ports.

“However, we should look into the valid concerns around international seafarers coming to shore for medical treatment or other reasons without being tested for Covid-19. Irrespective of the mode of transport, travelers entering New Zealand should be required to be tested and quarantined.”

No conflict of interest.

Associate Professor Lincoln Wood, Operations & Supply Chain Management, Department of Management, Otago Business School, comments:

“Even during pandemics and crises, the flow of products continues. While passenger flights have been severely disrupted, products continued to move through maritime ports. Overseas, there are entirely or semi-automated ports and logistics hubs, reducing person-to-person contacts. Our ports are less automated and have relatively few contact points but there is still a risk of virus transmissions that can be minimised.

“Two proposals would be effective in exerting control and reducing risks at maritime ports. First, we can increase testing of port workers and foreign vessel crews. While modern vessels are automated and use small crews, there remains a risk of transmission that can be reduced. Better personnel movement protocols can reduce contact points and where locations used by both crews and workers can be subjected to increased sanitisation. With the national contact tracing capabilities, any virus transmission could be rapidly identified and managed. The approach can be implemented quickly at low cost and with little difficulty.

“Second, we could curtail international vessel interactions with New Zealand ports by mandating a smaller number of international ports and increasing domestic sea freight movements from these hubs to regional ports. Fewer ports would support the design, implementation, and monitoring of enhanced protocols for testing and reducing contact between foreign crews and domestic workers. The approach is politically challenging as, following deregulation, we have many ports in competition. Consolidating international ports would represent a significant shift in thinking about a national ports strategy but would enable more control over this potential virus transmission point. Reducing the number of international ports would be challenging to implement and would herald other changes in the logistics and freight sector.”

Conflict of interest statement: “No conflict of interest, but I have a relationship with a logistics company (not a port), where one of my doctoral students is working on a Callaghan Innovation funded project.”

Dr Bill Wang, Senior Lecturer in Supply Chain Management, Auckland University of Technology (AUT) Business School, comments:

“As New Zealand relies heavily on international trade, there is no doubt that freight plays a critical role in the New Zealand economy – a role that will be even more important as we recover from COVID-19. But some evidence has shown there is a potential relationship between freight – especially sea freight – and Covid cases after the border has been closed.

“Based on research of Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Australia, on most surfaces, the new coronavirus can survive for about six to seven days; some can even survive for about two weeks and may be transmitted to humans.

“Therefore, it is necessary for us to improve the awareness of the security of the international freight, especially the sea freight mode. All the stakeholders, especially the central and local government, and the ports, should not ignore the potential risk from the sea freight despite that the crews have been strictly tested. It is always more effective and efficient to be proactive rather than be reactive.

“Some measures are necessary and needed although the related cost may be increased. For example, we could use an ‘ABC analysis‘ to classify imported goods into A, B, and C types of freight sources based on their origin country’s Covid-19 situation (e.g. spot check and test those goods, especially cold food, from A-type countries.) Meanwhile, collaboration between importers, freighter carriers, and exporters to share necessary information, which can be tracked and traced, could reduce risks.”

No conflict of interest