The Belgian government has recently agreed to prioritise COVID-19 vaccines for seafarers on its vessels. It is believed to be the first programme of its kind in Europe.

The development follows calls from the UK Chamber of Shipping and Nautilus International for the UK government to prioritise seafarer vaccination and to establish the UK as a global seafarer vaccination hub, where seafarers of all nationalities can access COVID-19 vaccines.

In a joint letter written in April, Nautilus general secretary Mark Dickinson and UK Chamber of Shipping CEO Bob Sanguinetti wrote: “In many nations, seafarers are not being prioritised for vaccination by their domestic vaccination programmes. Without such prioritisation, the shipping industry will need to develop a global solution for seafarers to access vaccines while away from home.

“We believe that the UK can take the lead in calling for a global solution and that to do so would be to pre-empt and to mitigate issues likely to be faced by seafarers travelling internationally, such as the need for vaccination passports to facilitate travel.”

While many countries in Europe and around the world have, at some point, closed their borders to seafarers during the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK has remained accessible for crew changes and transits. With its continued support of the maritime industry during this time, therefore, it might seem plausible that the UK government would also support such an initiative enabling the vaccination of seafarers.

The IMO is reportedly working with the World Health Organisation, UNICEF vaccines access agency Covax, and member states to set up various hubs for seafarer vaccinations. However, reports have also suggested that even the countries that are furthest down the road with their vaccination programmes, such as the UK, would probably only have jabs available for crewmembers in the last quarter of 2021.

With the Belgian government now setting an example in Europe over the vaccination of seafarers, it will be interesting to see if other countries follow suit. If a similar initiative is set up in the UK, it is likely to have a significant impact on superyacht crew, many of whom transit through the country regularly and would be able to easily access such a programme.

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