Impact of COVID-19 in the operation of vessels arriving at Spanish ports: obligation to isolate or confine “Close contacts” in case of infection of a crew member and the “Free Practique”

A vessel arriving at a Spanish port needs to be granted her Free Practique. The Free Practique is a certificate or licence given to the vessel to enter a port on the assurance that she is free from contagious diseases i.e., the ship is without infection disease or plague on board. This certificate is issued by the Spanish Border-Health authorities.

If Owners do not obtain the Free Practique because of COVID-19, the Spanish Maritime Authorities will not authorize the vessel:

  • To enter into port, board/disembark people or load/unload supplies or cargo.
  • To sail from her position (at anchorage or berthed) to another port. In our experience, the Spanish Authorities could exceptionally authorize the vessel to sail from the Spanish port if the Flag State authorizes the voyage and assumes all responsibility derived from the health situation on board. In this case, the Spanish Port Authorities can request the intervention on board of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) to protect the rights of the crew members for the voyage authorized by the Flag State.

If the vessel’s “Maritime Health Declaration” issued by the Master shows any incidence on board compatible with COVID-19, the granting of the Free Practique will be blocked automatically. In this case, the referred Declaration must be delivered directly by the shipagent to the Spanish Border-Health Authority at the same time that it is sent to the Port Authority via telematic DUE system. 

The Free Practique will be blocked until the required checks and actions are carried out by the Spanish Border-Health Authorities in connection with the potential cases of COVID-19 on board. “Suspected” or “Confirmed” cases and “close contacts” on board are defined, according to the regulations governing the strategy for early detection, surveillance, and control of COVID-19, as follows:

  1. “Suspected cases”: are considered those persons that show signs and symptoms of respiratory disease or infection or otherwise present typical COVID-19 symptomatology such as loss of the sense of smell (anosmia) or taste (ageusia), painful swallowing (odynophagia) sense of general malaise etc.
    A diagnostic test for active infection (PDIA) must be carried out.
  1. “Confirmed positive cases”: would be those cases (symptomatic or asymptomatic) confirmed by a diagnostic test for active infection (PDIA).
    The confinement period for these cases will be:
  • For symptomatic cases 3 days since the end of the fever and the disappearance of the symptoms with a minimum of 10 days since the symptoms showed up, and
  • For asymptomatic cases a period of 10 days since the date of their test for diagnosis.
  1. “Close contacts”: generally, anyone who has been within 2 meters for longer than 15 minutes in contact with a confirmed positive case (2 days prior to symptoms or diagnostic sampling).
    “Close contacts” must also be kept in confinement for a minimum period of 10 days since the date of last contact with the confirmed positive case.

In accordance with the operating procedure of the Border-Health Authorities in response to the outbreak of the disease for the new coronavirus (COVID-19), when a confirmed positive case of COVID-19 has been detected on board a merchant vessel or fishing vessel, the entire crew of the vessel shall be considered as ‘close contacts’, and thus, the crew shall be confined initially on board and for a minimum period of 10 days as referred above. This does not apply to passenger ships such as ferries and cruise vessels.

Exemptions to the need to confine any “close contact” to a confirmed case of COVID would be the following:

  • Vaccinated persons (full dose according to the corresponding vaccine i.e. Pfizer 2 or Janssen 1 dose, etc.) as long as they are not immunosuppressed or there is no link to outbreaks of BETA and GAMMA variant or a transmission from minks is not suspected.
  • Asymptomatic persons who have been confirmed positive by a test for active infection (PDIA) for SARS-CoV-2 within the previous 180 days, and
  • Essential workers in certain situations.

The Border-Health Authorities will be monitoring the crew confined on board to detect any new positive case that may arise. Owners and crewmembers must follow the instructions of the Sanitary Authorities. In our experience, health monitoring consists basically in the obligation to report the temperature and symptoms of each crew member on a daily basis. 

In this scenario, Free Practique will not be granted until the confinement period expires. 

The problem that Owners face is that new positive case/s confirmed on board may appear while the crew is confined which will immediately extend the period of confinement to 10 more days counted from the last contact of the crew with the new confirmed positive case. This would further delay the obtention of the Free Practique certificate until the termination of the new extended period with the consequences described herein. 

Considering the above potential risk, it may be worth considering the possibility to carry out a complete replacement of the crew to limit the potential damages and risk exposure for the Owners arising from the delay of the vessel’s operations.

Once a COVID case has been detected on board and while the Free Practique remains blocked, Owners should also be aware that any authorization to operate the vessel must be permitted by the Border-Health Authorities directly instead of the Maritime Authorities (Harbor Master or Port Authority).  Not complying with the requests of the Spanish Health Authorities may give rise to administrative sanctions and potential criminal and civil liabilities for any injuries or death suffered by the crewmembers due to COVID-19 as a result of such failure to comply. 

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