Port of Tauranga questions Covid ship assessment risk quality

Port of Tauranga’s chief executive has questioned the quality of government agencies’ risk assessment of the vessel flagged as a Covid risk but allowed to berth and unload.

“The concern really is around the decision to allow the vessel in the first place,” said Leonard Sampson, as the container terminal at New Zealand’s biggest port operates at half strength while stevedores later told to self-isolate await test results.

“I think more transparency and understanding around the risk assessment process in the beginning [was needed]. From our perspective we would have liked to see a comprehensive risk assessment carried out on August 3 before the vessel was allowed to berth at the port.”

The Rio de la Plata departed the Tauranga port on Saturday afternoon and is at anchor off the Bay of Plenty.

Eleven of the 21 crew on board the ship have tested positive for Covid-19 resulting in 98 frontline port workers employed by a Port of Tauranga contractor self-isolating. The Government has said only nine were fully vaccinated and two had received one dose.

The workers are lashers who board a ship to handle containers. Sampson said their first tests have come back negative and testing sites had been set up at the port for this afternoon for them to be retested.

The port had been advised 72 hours had to pass between stevedores’ last contact with the vessel and restarting work. That would be 2pm today but the port did not expect the labour pool, if second tests were negative, to be available again until tomorrow.

Sampson said the port was advised around 4pm on August 3 by Maritime NZ which works with the Ministry of Health, that a vessel had just arrived offshore that had carried an Australian pilot who had tested positive for Covid-19. The pilot had disembarked at Brisbane after two days shepherding the vessel through the Torres Strait area off Australia.

The vessel then sailed for Sydney and on to Tauranga.

“As a result [of the pilot’s positive test] there was a flag on that vessel, not to bring it in,” said Sampson.

But on the evening of the same day, August 3, the port was advised by Maritime NZ the vessel had been assessed and cleared to berth, he said. Overnight between August 3 and 4, the port received documentation from the local public officer of health which said it was safe to bring in the vessel.

“We had vessels on the berth and it was not scheduled to bring it in until the next day, August 4, anyway. It came in at 5pm and work started [on it] around 6pm on August 4.

“At 9pm on August 4, Customs on the advice of the Ministry of Health, shut down the work. At around 9am on August 5, the next day, we were advised there was no further risk, the assessment had been completed and they were able to return to work and continue to work.”

Sampson said on Sunday evening, August 8, the news came that 11 of the vessel’s crew had tested positive and that all port workers who had been on board were required to be tested and self-isolate.

“Clearly our concern is for the workers involved and we want to support them. We understand their frustration with the agencies that have carried out the risk assessment.”

Sampson said it would be helpful to see an investigation as to how that assessment was carried out.

The Rio de la Plata’s cargo – mostly imports destined for Auckland – had been unloaded.

Processing of them had been delayed by 24 hours because of the stop-start advisories.

Two vessels loading exports were currently at the container terminal. While crane and straddle operators could still work, on-board lashers were crucial to container handling and operations on these two ships would take longer because labour had to be shared across them, Sampson said.

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