Ebola creates atmosphere of fear in UK shipping industry

Ships entering UK waters that have visited ports in west Africa affected by the Ebola virus are being monitored by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which is asking them to provide details of the “health status” on board.

There have been claims of an “atmosphere of fear” in the shipping industry, which has led to some seafarers and shipowners refusing to call at the ports in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea at the centre of the medical emergency.

If there is any reason to suspect someone on a vessel has the life-threatening disease, a ship in British waters will be required to divert to a port designated by the marine authorities, the MCA said in a circular sent to ports and their pilots.

There was also a warning that the information about a vessel of interest affected by Ebola should only be used and shared by individuals who have a genuine operational interest.

No seafarers are yet known to have contracted the virus but the website of the London-based insurance business Steamship Mutual reported in August that Ebola’s “virulence has created an atmosphere of fear. There are examples of crews refusing to enter ports in countries where outbreak of the disease has been reported.”

AP Moller-Maersk, the world’s biggest liner operator, has said it is continuing to provide regular services to the affected countries in west Africa but some other companies have transferred vessels, and trade is down in Liberia by 30%.

Eva Maria Kops, Maersk Line’s Liberia country manager, said some countries in Asia were refusing to take cargoes from the affected areas.

Some African nations have a blanket ban on ships that have called at Monrovia in Liberia, Freetown in Sierra Leone or Conakry in Guinea.

Kops said she thought many people were badly overreacting to the outbreak: “I feel safe – absolutely. It is important to state that it is not easy to contract Ebola. There has to be physical contact, while alcohol and chlorine kill the virus.”

But she said her company was doing its best to keep crews healthy. Unnecessary contact with port officials was avoided and there were more limited security inspections of the vessels by shoreside authorities.

“We have four ships working there and the crews are kept up to date and know how to handle the situation. They wear full suits across the whole body, shoe covers and masks as long as shoreside people are on board. There is no shaking of hands between the two sides as there used to be.”

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