Port closures and risks to crew safety. These are some of the consequences of the current ebola outbreak for which the shipping industry is bracing itself.

The current ebola outbreak began six months ago in Guinea in West Africa. According to the latest figures from the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 4,000 people have died from the disease. In particular the West African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone are most affected by the epidemic. In total, 8,399 ebola cases have been reported, with Spain and the USA now among the countries affected.

This makes the current outbreak the worst in history, and the crisis is increasingly monitored by shipowners. Several airlines, including British Airways and Air France, have cancelled their flights to West Africa, and several Danish shipowners have considered refusing to call at West African ports.

Working group to advise shipowners

While maintaining service, all Danish shipowners exercise great caution as regards the risk of infection.

Together with a number of shipowners, the Danish Shipowners' Association has set up a working group to provide advice and information to shipowners on how to avoid infection and how the disease develops.

Taking the necessary precautions, efforts will be made to maintain trade with the areas affected, to ensure the delivery of supplies and at the same time to prevent the outbreak from hitting the Danish shipping industry, which is a major export trade.

Responsibility for the crew safety

n time charter parties, the shipowner is required to follow the charterer's orders unless this will endanger the vessel. Generally speaking, a port is safe in legal terms if a vessel can reach the port, use it and exit the port without being exposed to dangers which cannot be avoided by good navigation and seamanship.

Traditionally, case law has shown a tendency to focus on the safety of the vessel and not the safety of the crew. However, it cannot be excluded that the ebola threat to the crew would in itself be sufficient to deem the port unsafe in legal terms. And in all circumstances, the shipowner is responsible for the safety of the crew.

Risk of infection and stowaways

So far, all ports in West Africa are still open. However, since most cargo from West Africa consists of general cargo, shipowners face the additional challenge that local stevedores are being used to a great extent, boarding the vessel in connection with loading and unloading.

If a stevedore is a disease carrier, infection may at worst be transmitted to the crew. Consequently, there is a risk of the vessel being placed in quarantine - resulting in delays and off-hire.

Unless it is possible under the charter party to refuse to call at the affected ports, it is therefore of paramount importance that the crew rigorously comply with the ISPS Code and generally do everything possible to avoid stowaways.

Reports of stowaways from West Africa during the current ebola outbreak have already resulted in quarantine for several vessels, and a few countries have started to turn away vessels that have recently called at ports in the affected areas.

Future charter parties and fixtures

At the present time, it is impossible to predict the future development of the ebola outbreak. On 8 August 2014, the WHO declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), and nothing seems to indicate that the outbreak will be contained in the near future.

Consequently, shipowners are increasingly considering whether - in future charter parties and fixtures - they should insist on a trading limit (the right to refuse to call at specific harbours) for the countries affected, and whether it is possible to negotiate for the inclusion of such a trading limit in existing charter parties and fixtures.