British port authorities have boarded six cruise ships anchored near London and Bristol amid “serious concerns” over the welfare of almost 1,500 crew stranded because of the coronavirus pandemic.
One of the vessels, the Astoria, has been temporarily detained following reports to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) that it was planning to leave the country without repatriation secured for the crew.
Katy Ware, the director of maritime safety and standards and the UK’s permanent representative to the International Maritime Organization, said: “We will always take reports around crew welfare seriously and we have used our powers as the port state control authority to carry out this detention so that we can investigate more fully.”
Hundreds of crew members have been stranded in Tilbury Docks in the Thames estuary for months since cruises to Iceland and elsewhere were cancelled as the Covid-19 crisis deepened.
There have been unverified reports of hunger strikes, with Indian crew members making a direct appeal to India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, to intervene. One person has died of a heart attack, the ships’ owners said.
The All India Seafarer and General Workers Union wrote to the Indian foreign office three days ago saying that “in the coronavirus outbreak our Indian citizens [are] stuck in foreign waters from past 90 days and need help”.
The letter requesting urgent repatriation of 164 crew members onboard the Astoria said many of the crew members had begun a hunger strike onboard. It said they had also staged a peaceful protest on the ship asking the Indian government and state officials to help.
It is believed there are between 400 and 500 crew from India on the five ships, anchored in Tilbury Docks and off Bristol, with hundreds more from Indonesia.
The ships’ owner, Cruise and Maritime Voyages, confirmed that 50 out of 262 crew members on the Astoria had “commenced a strike, including no longer performing routine maintenance work onboard”. It said the crew were trying to draw attention to their continued frustration at not being allowed to fly home due to global travel restrictions.
The company said 1,449 crew were on board the five ships including 149 on the Astoria, more than 100 fewer than on board earlier this week.
It said it was working hard to repatriate the crew and its “thoughts and sympathies” lay with staff stranded onboard since March “through no fault of their own”. In reply to allegations that some crew had gone on hunger strike, it said that all members of staff were eating.
The company is in talks with potential lenders and investors as it scrambles to secure funding to see it through the coronavirus pandemic.
Shipping logs show the Astoria left Mexico in mid-February, arriving in Poole, Dorset, on 14 March just as Europe went in lockdown. It arrived in Tilbury docks a day later, with crew stuck there ever since.
The company said it had been due to set sail from Poole on an Iceland and Northern Lights cruise that had been cancelled because of the Covid crisis. It also confirmed that one member of staff on one of its other ships, the Vasco da Gama, had died of natural causes.
“Cruise and Maritime Voyages reports that in the early hours of this morning a crew member onboard the Vasco da Gama at London Tilbury passed away following a heart attack,” it said in a statement earlier this week.
The MCA said it had detained the Astoria, which sails under a Madeira flag of convenience, on Thursday with inspections aimed at investigating reports of welfare concerns on all six ships under way from Friday morning.
“The detention is a preventative measure in line with UK regulations, in order that a full inspection of the ship related to the maritime labour convention can be carried out before its intended departure. It cannot leave the port until the inspection is completed,” it said.
“Five other ships in the same company – Global Cruise Lines Ltd – four others based at Tilbury and one at Bristol, are also being inspected. Acting as the port state control authority for the UK, the MCA has taken this action following a number of serious concerns which were raised about the welfare of the crew.”
Seafarers’ organisation the International Transport Workers Federation said it was “aware of the situation and was monitoring it”. If necessary it would intervene to safeguard the crew, it said.
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