Belgium now inoculates foreign seafarers via roving vaccination teams on board ships

Following the successful COVID-19 vaccination of Belgian seafarers that started on 2 June, Belgium is going boldly beyond by moving a level up with a proposal by the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for the North Sea, Mr Vincent van Quickenborne, the Royal Belgian Shipowners’ Association (RBSA) and the Directorate-General of Shipping. The Vaccination Task Force and the Interministerial Conference on Public Health started a vaccination campaign from 26 July onward for all seafarers arriving in a Belgian port, regardless of their nationality. In order to give this hard-to-reach target group the maximum opportunity to be vaccinated, roving medical teams will go on board the vessels in the ports. This makes Belgium the first country in the world to provide the vaccination for seafarers in this way.

Shipping is an essential mode of transport in the world of trade, and its continuity should be safeguarded. 90% of goods arrive in our country by sea.

Every year, more than 5,500 ships of various types dock in Belgium’s international ports, and together around 80,000 seafarers work onboard. These seafarers live at sea in closed groups for extended periods – a precarious situation should there be a COVID-19 outbreak onboard. In addition, a large number of these seafarers come from countries where COVID-19 vaccination is currently insufficient or unavailable to seafarers.

In order to give this hard-to-reach, often-forgotten group the maximum opportunity to be vaccinated, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for the North Sea Vincent Van Quickenborne, the Royal Belgian Shipowners’ Association and the Directorate-General Shipping of Federal Government’s Department for Mobility and and Transport developed a plan of action. The Taskforce Vaccination and the Interministerial Conference on Public Health gave the green light for the vaccination plan for seafarers on board ships flying a foreign flag from 26 July onward. This phase of the campaign is in no way performed at the expense of the current vaccinations for Belgians.

This concerns seafarers who are:

  • staying and working on board a vessel docked in a Belgian port, or
  • arriving in Belgium in order to board a vessel docked in a Belgian port (signing-on), or,
  • leaving the vessel docked in a Belgian port in order to return to their home country via Belgium (signing-off).

Roving vaccination teams have been set up to go on board the vessels in the ports to perform the inoculation under the supervision of Mediport and with the assistance of hospitals of the Gasthuisgroep Antwerpen. Taking into account the one-off visit to a Belgian port and the logistical challenges, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine – as a single-dose vaccine – is the most appropriate one.

With the vaccine, we are offering seafarers the certainty that they can carry out their profession under its unique circumstances in a safe manner, and that they are able to travel smoothly and securely to foreign ports.

Together with Germany and the United States, Belgium is one of the only countries that are inoculating foreign seafarers, and the only one in the world to do so onboard vessels using mobile medical teams.

At the international level, Belgium is putting its weight behind a stronger policy for the maritime sector under the International Maritime Organization (IMO). With this decision, our country is making a contribution to the global fight against the virus to prevent it from spreading further. Belgium argues that other countries should also give priority to seafarers in order to facilitate their safe cross-border crossing.

Vincent Van Quickenborne, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for the North Sea said: “The fight against COVID-19 is not limited to Belgium, it is a global effort. Shipping, as a symbol of world trade, employs more than 1.5 million seafarers of diverse nationalities. For many of them, vaccines are out of reach in their own country and they are left exposed to the virus. In response to this global emergency, Belgium as a country with the world’s largest ports, is taking the lead in making vaccines accessible to all seafarers who arrive by sea. We call on other countries to likewise prioritise the vaccination of this essential group. Only then can the continuity of global trade be guaranteed.”

Dr Rob Verbist, port doctor of Mediport, is carrying out the vaccination drive in Antwerp together with his team explained: “All seafarers, regardless of nationality, will be provided with a single dose of Johnson & Johnson vaccine once their ship anchors at a Belgian port. The threshold for inoculation is further lowered through the administration of the vaccines directly onboard by our mobile team.”

Wilfried Lemmens, Managing Director of the Royal Belgian Shipowners’ Association (RBSA) commented: “With the success of the vaccination campaign’s first phase for Belgian seafarers, we can now roll out the second phase for all seafarers. We should not be blind to the fact that many seafarers of all nationalities have limited or no access to vaccination in their own country. It is also a humanitarian responsibility for all countries to provide the necessary protection against the virus for seafarers. This is an important sign of gratitude towards seafarers for keeping the supply chains up and running.”

Marc Beerlandt, Managing Director MSC Belgium added: “MSC would like to thank the Belgian government, the Royal Belgian Shipowners’ Association and the Antwerp maritime community for their critical support to the international seafarer community. The lack of access to COVID-19 vaccines is putting global supply chains under mounting pressure. With the global mobility of shipping crews already severely limited and hundreds of thousands of seafarers who have kept the world moving amid COVID-19 lockdowns still stuck at sea, the lack of access to vaccines risks serious disruptions to global trade. It is gratifying that this initiative is being taken here, in Belgian ports. It is critical to world trade and supply chains that all governments recognise seafarers as key workers and prioritise them for vaccinations. This initiative perfectly demonstrates the importance that the Belgian government attaches to the Flemish port economy.”

Hilde Bruggeman, Director NAVES/Antwerp Shipping Association (ASV) said: “This timely initiative is greatly appreciated by shipowners. Shipowners have long been looking for solutions to have their crews vaccinated in a smooth and safe manner and this is what we can offer them right now. We will certainly reap the benefits of this in the long run: Not only will it become safer for everyone who has to go to work on board, we also run less risks of infected crews calling at our ports. This is definitely a win-win situation for shipowners, for our ports and for everyone involved.”

Press contacts:

Maxim Laporte, Communications Advisor (maxim@teamjustitie.be, +32 474 77 70 30)
Wilfried Lemmens, RBSA Managing Director (wilfried.lemmens@brv.be, +32 471 80 06 51)


Practical information:

The vaccines will be kept, prepared and distributed from two medical centres:

Port of Antwerp and Port of Ghent:
Mediport
Italiëlei 51
2000 Antwerpen
mediport@online.be
+32 474 25 05 09

Port of Zeebrugge:
Dr Thomas Vandamme
Noordzeestraat 14
8380 Zeebrugge
thomas.vandamme@attentia.be
+32 50 54 46 46

In these centres, vaccines may be administered to on-signers and off-signers, and seafarers attending for testing, fitness examinations or medical treatments. From these centres, teams will collect syringes with prepared vaccines and go to ships to vaccinate seafarers on board. The teams will consist of doctors and/or nurses, their number depending on the number of
vaccines ordered.

They will have their own transport to the ship, they are equipped with all personal protection material terminals may require and will be announced prior to arrival via the appropriate system, where necessary assisted by the agent.

Planning of the vaccinations

48 hours before berthing, the agent informs the responsible medical centre by email about a request for vaccination by the master of a vessel:

  • The number of vaccines requested, keeping in mind that only non-vaccinated crew can be vaccinated, those who have received a first dose of another vaccine elsewhere cannot be vaccinated with J&J.
  • The estimated time of berthing and the expected total time in port.
  • Where possible masters can also send crew to the medical centre for vaccination, this especially if the number is small, like 4 persons or less.

In respect of the first call, first served principle the dispatch at the medical centre also takes into account:

  • Date and time of the request by email
  • The number of vaccines requested (the more, the higher the priority)
  • The return of the vessel to a Belgian port (regular ships may have to wait for ships coming only occasionally)
  • The total time in port (the longer the vessel stays, the less urgent vaccination is)
  • The accessibility of the terminal (the less time a team spends on a vaccination job, the more chance to get it done)

The vaccination is offered but cannot be claimed, the capacity of the medical centres and teams is expanded but has limitations. Availability of teams and vaccines may fluctuate, the medical centres therefore may not be able to fulfil every request made, certainly not in the beginning of the campaign.

In the beginning the teams will work early and late, but no night work and not during weekends.