The fight to stop coronavirus spreading is a global one. While attention initially focused on airports, it’s now turning to the world’s other main entrypoint: ports. How can technology assist governments to clear trade as quickly and efficiently as possible?
Around 90% of world trade is transported by sea. Unlike air traffic, nations can’t simply close their ports if they want to stay open for business. It is clear governments are required to quickly devise innovative measures to control their maritime borders, which will help limit the spread of the virus while minimizing the economic impact.
Some governments have already begun implementing restrictions on maritime transport, such as delays in port clearance, stopping crews and passengers from disembarking – even refusing entry. But the measures needed to strike that delicate balance between protecting national health and maintaining economic stability differ from country to country. Each one has its unique economic characteristics influenced by industry and geography, leading to different shipping profiles, and therefore different levels of exposure when it comes to controlling maritime borders.
Take the United States. In the past two weeks, 144 ships arrived at U.S. ports after departing from one of the countries most exposed to the COVID-19 outbreak. These voyages represent 8.5% of all port calls by ships arriving from outside the U.S. during that time window. This number may seem high, but given its distance from trading partners, all but 12 of these ships had spent more than 14 days at sea prior to arrival – equivalent to an effective quarantine.
In the UK, meanwhile, one-fifth of all incoming voyages came from those same high-risk countries, equivalent to 375 port entries. Just three of them were at sea for more than 14 days prior to arrival; 356 lasted four days or less.
Furthermore, there is a major difference in the types of ships involved. In the United States, almost 90% of voyages were conducted by tankers, containerships, and bulkers. In the UK these subclasses made up just 30% of arrivals. A further 25% came from a group of around 100 Roll-on/Roll-off (RORO) ships carrying people and cars, many of them making round trips between the UK and continental Europe.
This last group of ships may actually create an opportunity for UK authorities to take targeted measures to handle border control around these vessels to enable rapid clearance and handling. Perhaps it would be possible to apply special measures at particular ports, leaving others to continue more normally?
Back in the United States, it’s worth noting that almost one-third of all inbound voyages originate from Mexico and the Bahamas. With that in mind, what happens if either gets added to the WHO’s list of “high exposure” countries. What measures should the U.S. take now to safeguard public health if this occurs?
Technology is key to delivering the enhanced awareness and insights needed to inform strategic and tactical decision making, clearing trade as quickly and efficiently as possible while developing innovative – and sensitive – ways to handle maritime transport. Being able to focus on the few cases where crews may have been exposed to COVID-19 will be vital as authorities come under pressure to increase checks.
The shipping industry must cooperate with national authorities to protect public health. But it also needs to take into account the wellbeing of seafarers, and ensure it has the proper means to carry on shipping and trading operations – e.g. changing crews, enabling shore leave, providing supplies, repairs and surveys, loading and discharging.
Knowing who is heading towards their shores, and improving dialogue between the industry and authorities, will highlight where proactive efforts are needed. It will show how small changes, such as slower sailing, can ensure trade continues to flow – and that it remains the beating heart of the global economy.