11 Dec 2020

Covid-19: Bungle allows cargo ship crew to skip isolation protocols

5:56 am on 11 December 2020

A bungle by Taranaki health officials has resulted in the crew of an overseas cargo vessel being allowed shore leave before they completed Covid-19 isolation protocols.

Port Taranaki

Port of Taranaki (file photo). Crew of the Yangtze Flourish were granted shore leave under the belief that they had met the 14-day isolation period, the DHB says. Photo: Wiki Commons

The district health board's mistake meant that more than 20 sailors from the Yangtze Flourish were able to wander the streets of New Plymouth despite not meeting the required 14-day isolation period.

The vessel left Malaysia with a cargo of palm kernel on 6 November and arrived in New Plymouth on 25 November.

Crucially, an Australian pilot came on board to negotiate Torres Strait on 15 November, and the 14-day period should have begun after this.

The captain told Taranaki authorities about the pilot, but it was overlooked.

Phoenix Shipping managing director Billy Preston handled the Yangtze Flourish's visit to Port Taranaki.

He said the error was picked up by another centre.

"Then the vessel applied for shore leave at its next port, which was going to be in Napier, and the DHB over in Hawke's Bay noticed that the vessel was still inside its 14 days when they had Covid testing (in New Plymouth), so it meant we had a whole lot of crew walking around town - even though they'd been tested - they were still inside their 14 days."

Preston said he was losing faith in border controls at ports.

"You sort of have a lack of confidence in the people that are actually making these decisions and the other thing is that I don't think they actually understand shipping.

"You've got a lot of these guys who have been at sea over 12 months - they can't go home, they can't go ashore.

"The crew that came off the Yangtze Flourish, that was the first time they'd been ashore in 12 months."

Phoenix Shipping manager Billy Preston handled the Yangtze Flourish's visit to Port Taranaki.

Phoenix Shipping manager Billy Preston handled the Yangtze Flourish's visit to Port Taranaki. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

The district health board declined to be interviewed, but in a statement initially said the crew had met isolation requirements.

"We can confirm that all vessel crew returned a negative test result on two occasions, and all members had completed their 14-day managed isolation before being granted shore leave."

When challenged, the DHB changed its story.

"The vessel crew was granted shore leave under the belief it met the criteria. However, after this we discovered a pilot had boarded the vessel in the Torres Straight, meaning that the 14-day isolation period calculation was incorrect.

"Taranaki DHB subsequently arranged for retesting of the vessel crew to ensure that illness had not developed."

Port Taranaki, Customs and Maritime NZ all declined to be interviewed while pointing the finger at each other and the district health board.

Craig Harrison is the national secretary of the Maritime Union which represents waterfront workers and seafarers.

He said the bungle was a worry.

"It is concerning I think a lot more homework needs to be done by our border control. For instance the ship's log will have details of when a pilot is on board and when the pilot gets off.

"And also getting the captain of the vessels to be very clear about when they were last on port call and who was on board."

Harrison was sure it would not be the last such glitch.

"We'll also have teething problems. Even before we had Covid-19 we had problems with foreign ships reporting what was going on. So you know it will keep on happening."

He had some sympathy for the Taranaki DHB.

"For the DHB, to be fair, they've probably never had to deal with the shipping industry like they are now."

Billy Preston, however, thought New Plymouth dodged a bullet.

"Thank God for the people of New Plymouth that they got tested a second time and no one had Covid otherwise there would have been a very unhappy town."

The crew of the Yangtze Flourish had their shore leave in New Plymouth closely monitored by locals.

Worried port workers prevented them leaving their ship on one day and the police were called when they visited a supermarket on another.

It both cases - correctly as it turns out - people thought they were breaching isolation rules.

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