Like other industries operating in and from the Maltese Islands, the shipping industry has been negatively impacted by the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

The Travel Ban Order (L.N. 42 of 2020) was one of the first legal instruments that was promulgated by the Maltese authorities in an effort to control the spread of the virus in the Maltese Islands. The Order had a direct effect on domestic shipping activities, especially since the Order was 'updated' by virtue of L.N. 63 and L.N. 92 of 2020. By virtue of these legal notices and a string of Port Notices (04, 05 and 06 of 2020) strict operational restrictions have been imposed on all related shipping and yachting activities around Maltese ports and marinas, severely limiting or controlling activity, with the ultimate aim of controlling the spread of the virus.

i. Cruise liners. The thriving Maltese cruise industry, which has been built over the last 20 years as part of an attempt to up-market its tourism industry, took the biggest hit as a result of this legislative intervention as cruise liners have been banned from entering Malta and this already has a skittle ball effect on Malta, especially the Valletta-based businesses. The same is applicable to other passenger carrying vessels.

ii. Cargo Ships. Malta imports a large majority of food and other essential commodities and it is essential that ports remain open to cargo ships. Additionally, Malta is considered as the main transshipment hub in the Mediterranean. In fact, cargo ships including container ships and ro-ro vessels carrying goods and essential commodities and tankers loaded with essential fuels are not banned from entering Maltese ports, subject to abiding by port rules and other COVID-19 related rules imposed by the Health Authorities.

Although the importation of all types of cargo into Malta (which is essential to the Islands) continue, port workers, foremen of port workers, pilots, tugs, mooring men and terminal operators have all been made subject to strict rules that they must observe during all port operations to ensure that the spread of the virus is contained.

iii. Bunkering operations have also been allowed although likewise operational rules apply and most importantly the crew on board the bunker barge have strict orders not to make contact with the crew on board the ship taking bunkers. If they do, even accidentally, the crew must then observe the applicable rules on quarantine.

iv. Ships that request permission to enter Maltese harbors, not to discharge cargo, but for repairs or to take supplies will need to obtain special leave of entry from the local authorities – and this is being considered by the authorities on a case by case basis and subject rules imposed by the Superintendent of Public Health and the Harbour Master.

v. Crew changes in Malta continue, however they are subject to mandatory quarantine and can only take place while the ship concerned is in port.

vi. Offshore supply vessels providing supplies to rigs offshore, continue to provide this essential service subject to the Harbour Master's discretion and to directions from the Health Authorities.

vii. Boarding of vessels. With the exception of port workers, foremen of port workers, pilots, tugs, mooring men and terminal operators involved in cargo handling operations, shore personnel are not allowed to board vessels unless expressly authorised by the Health Authorities. Technical personnel such as surveyors and technicians also require such written authorisation. Interaction with the crew of the vessel is to be kept to the minimum possible. On disembarkation, all personnel are subject to mandatory quarantine.

viii. Conveyances. All other conveyances may be carried out within or outside territorial waters, are subject to the same rules. Crew of service launches should not make contact with the crew of the receiving vessel. In the event of contact, mandatory quarantine must be observed.

ix. Yacht Marinas. The authorities have taken the position that all yachts are banned from entering Malta.

x. Ferry service between Malta and Sicily. The ferry service between Malta and Sicily has been allowed to operate for essential commodities and other cargo only.

xi. Exceptional cases. The Superintendent of Public Health may, in her absolute discretion, issue an exemption from the provisions of the restrictive rules, where in her opinion the travel of certain persons or carriage of goods is deemed to be essential.

Insofar as the Malta-flagged vessels are concerned, the Malta Flag Administration has adopted internal proceedings to ensure that the Flag continues to give a service to ship owners, managers and their representatives in these somewhat challenging times. The Flag Administration remains open for business albeit its officers are working remotely.

With regard to vessels operating under the Malta Flag, by virtue of MSD Notice 157, the Flag Administration advised operators take the necessary precautionary measures, as well to remain vigilant and adopt good hygiene practices at all times. The Flag Administration encourages all parties forming party of the shipping cluster to refer continuously to the WHO advisory reports for the purposes of risk assessment, to take the necessary precautionary measures and to be aware of the latest WHO information regarding this disease.

Meanwhile, more recently, the Flag Administration followed up on its previous notice with MSD Notice 158 released to all ship owners, operators and managers on the 17th March, 2020. The last Notice is intended to alleviate a number of issues often faced by shipowners and operators. In particular, shipowners, managers and operators encountering difficulties in repatriating seafarers following the expiration of the employment term established in the seafarer's employment agreement may, on a case-by-case basis, request to extend the validity of the agreement for a maximum period of three months – which period may be extended for further periods should the situation remain the same.

Furthermore, seafarers in possession of a Certificate of Competency (CoC) issued by an Administration other than Malta and who are in possession of a Flag State Endorsement issued under the Merchant Shipping Act and in terms of the STCW Convention, which may expire during an extended period on board, may request the Malta Flag Administration to extend the validity of their Flag State Endorsement.

Finally, in cases where surveyors, auditors and/or inspectors are not able to undertake scheduled surveys, audit and inspections due to restrictions imposed by COVID-19, the Malta Flag Administration will consider requests for extensions or postponements under force majeure or unforeseen exceptional circumstances, on a case by case basis.

The situation both domestically, on the ground in Malta and internationally, through the operations of the Malta Flag, remains fluid and in a state of flux.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.