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Wuhan Coronavirus: its potential implications on the UK ports sector

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Dry Bulk,

Maritime law firm Hill Dickinson, an associate member of the British Ports Association (BPA), has recently published a short paper on the virus and its potential implications on the UK ports sector as part of the BPA’s Port Futures Programme.

The programme is a series of papers considering emerging and innovative trends in the ports sector. This article is part of a forthcoming wider piece of work from Hill Dickinson and the BPA which examines the potential impacts of pandemics on ports.

Commenting on the Hill Dickinson paper, the BPA’s Chief Executive, Richard Ballantyne, said: “The marine team at Hill Dickinson have put together this paper which gives an overview of the potential impacts of the Wuhan Coronavirus on UK ports. There is a real concern that coronavirus victims may be infectious even before symptoms manifest themselves, so the possibility of a serious outbreak in a UK port cannot be ruled out.

“The impacts in terms of trade flows are starting to be seen and there are figures which suggest in the first 3 months of 2020, there will be 6 million fewer container shipping movements globally. The China-Europe trade is also expected to fall by 20% in this period. This will mean higher costs for shipping and problems further down the supply chain, such as increased costs and shortages of certain commodities.”

Tony McDonach, Legal Director at Hill Dickinson, added: “The threats to the UK ports industry from the novel coronavirus are not immediate, but they are nevertheless real. The number of reported cases in the UK is low (nine at the time of writing) but growing.

“As outlined in the paper, a port with a quarantined ship or ships alongside is at risk of being designated an unsafe port. Where relevant, UK ports should familiarise themselves with the rights and responsibilities contained within charterparties. The charterers are under an obligation to nominate a safe port, and the shipowners must go there regardless of whether there is an unacceptable risk or if the port is known to be unsafe. Ports should also ensure they are familiar with the force majeure clauses in their standard terms and conditions, and that these provide adequate cover for business interruption resulting from the widest permissible variety of scenarios.”

The coronavirus has caused some disruptions at Chinese ports due to the lack of stevedores and truck drivers, therefore slowing down vessel turnaround times. Cruise ships in the region are also taking precautionary measures in a bid to prevent an outbreak of the coronavirus at sea. Such measures may include enforcing a two week incubation period, as was the case for the Diamond Princess and MS Westerdam.

The BPA have been liaising closely with the Department of Transport, following developments closely, and have also prepared its own guidance notes for UK ports in the face of an unprecedented situation facing the sector.

Ballantyne also commented: “UK ports play a critical role in facilitating international trade and the UK ports sector is committed to maintaining the flow of goods and passengers and working with port health authorities to minimise risks around the Wuhan Coronavirus. The company is continuing to disseminate support and information to the UK ports sector where possible in developing plants. BPA will continue to encourage port health authorities and national health bodies to lead on the UK’s planning and response to the ongoing threat posed by the coronavirus."

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