With Honiara the only Port in Pacific quarantining cargo ships and marine tankers at this point of time, the Solomon Islands Government’s Shipping Exemption Committee is mindful of the economic impacts.
The Shipping Exemption Committee is working hard to find the balance between maintaining Solomon Islands’ COVID-19 free status while at the same time avoiding further pressure on the economy when implementing measures.
Secretary to the Prime Minister and Chairman of the Government Oversight Committee’s Shipping Exemption Committee, Dr Jimmy Rodgers explains the role of the Exemption Committee and its importance during a recent interview with the Media and Communication Department of the Solomon Islands Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SICCI).
The Exemption Committee’s role is two folds. The primary responsibility is to make sure the country is protected from COVID-19 infection and secondly to make sure we look after the economic health of the country and that we do not pass on unnecessary cost to the consumers that are already under pressure economically. This involves a process where ships receive an exemption from the quarantine requirements, when the risk of COVID-19 transmission is very low or non-existent.
“We all know that Solomon Islands rely on outside trade from overseas mostly through cargo ships and we also rely on petroleum products coming on tanker vessels,” Dr Jimmy said.
“At the beginning of this process we did not know enough about COVID-19, so we quarantine everything that comes into the country. What that means is some of the cargo ships lay idle outside our international port and they lose business and they start to pass their costs on us for every day they are delayed,” he explained.
The quarantine periods imposed on shipping vessels - justified due to our COVID-19 testing and response systems - unfortunately has meant that shipping lines passed on these costs to the importer, or the consignee. Mandatory observation of the 14-dys quarantine period is rare in other regional countries.
The end effect is that goods and supplies then become more expensive for ordinary Solomon Islanders. Dr Jimmy acknowledges that these ships pay a substantial amount of money to come into the country such as to SIPA Ports, and that is why delaying them is not good for business.
“If we unnecessarily delay these ships then they pay us on the one hand but they charge us fee for delay.
“So, it’s not very good for the economy which is why the Exemption Committee is doing a job that not only keeps the country safe but also to keep our economy rolling,” he said.
Extra costs that shipping companies charge due to quarantine-related delays, reached US$250 per 20-foot container and US$120 per 14-foot container. In the case where a cargo ship comes in with 200 containers, you multiply those in US dollars and then convert to Solomon dollars, and that is the cost that is passed on to consumers.
Dr Jimmy stressed that it is also not fair on private businesses to meet the fees that are charged for delay due to quarantine requirements.
“Obviously if private businesses have to pay [additional costs due to delays], they pass on the cost to consumers. The consumers are the people the Government is wanting to protect from COVID-19 and also from high prices.”
According to a recent survey conducted by the Solomon Islands Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SICCI) on businesses, thirty-seven percent (37%) of respondents stated that the quarantine period for ships had delayed their cargo.
A further twenty-eight percent (28%) stated that the quarantine period has added costs to their business. In terms of export and import during the State of Public Emergency, thirty-three percent (33%) of businesses surveyed are seeing reduced volume. Only twenty-one percent (21%) are trading the same volume as before.
The Chamber is involved in the exempting of shipping vessels, as a member of the Shipping Exemption Committee.
To date, the Chamber has been raising and relaying to the National COVID-19 Oversight Committee the impacts of the travel restrictions currently in place as it affects movement of goods and supplies into the country.
The Exemption Committee has done an assessment of all Ports in the Pacific and found out that at this point in time Solomon Islands is the only country that is quarantining cargo ships and marine tankers.
Chairman, Dr Jimmy said this is why Solomon Islands is the only country in the Pacific these shipping companies are charging fees to, if there is a delay due to quarantine.
“Some of the countries under there State of Public Emergency, cargo ships and tankers are exempted from quarantine as they focus more on safety and protection as opposed to quarantining.
“For Solomon Islands, we do have a quarantine requirement, which means ships don’t just come in as and when they want, there is a limited requirement but the Exemption Committee looks at all these applications to make sure there is a win-win outcome, for the shipping companies, for the country, for the private sector and win for our consumers,” Dr Jimmy said.
It is understood that the latest shipping protocol now defines countries into three tiers with attached quarantine periods.
If the ship originates from a Tier 1 country, the mandatory fourteen (14) days quarantine period can be exempted to five (5) days. If coming from a Tier 2 country, the mandatory quarantine period can be lessened to nine (9) days.
However, if coming from a port in a Tier 3 country, the 14-days isolation period as quarantine stands.
Some of the countries in Tier 3 countries include hot-spots such as China, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Philippines. Our Pacific neighbours, PNG, Fiji, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Tonga, Nauru and Kiribati are in Tier 1, for comparison. Australia and New Zealand are in Tier 2.
Solomon Islands’ transhipment Port is mostly from Lae in Papua New Guinea and it takes three-five days sailing time which means if ships are coming directly from there, they can apply for up to two days exemption.
Dr Jimmy said this is where the Exemption Committee is quite important in making sure that no unnecessary charges are passed on where the safety considerations are not threatened.
“The next thing I do as Chairman is look at the ports outside of PNG. Where did they sail from? If the ship sail from Brisbane then the normal quarantine time for Australia is nine days. When leaving Australia, what port did it leave from. Consideration on the different states depending on their COVID-19 status. So we don’t just look at sailing time form PNG to Solomon Islands, but also other ports the ship been to,” he added.
All ships, regardless of their last port of call, have to produce and submit a total of seven documents to the Comptroller of Customs when applying for exemption who then forwards them to the Exemption Committee to decide on whether to grant exemption, and the number of days, or to decline.
The SICCI Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Ms Atenasi Ata is also a member of the Exemption Committee representing the private sector.
“All ships so far have also submitted as part of their paperwork, the measures that shipping lines are implementing such as steps to minimise person-to-person contact maybe maximising mechanisation of their process, and sanitisation/sterilisation practices.”
"From our observation too, the shipping lines are very conscientious with their COVID-19 protocols, and it is encouraging as they seem to be doing their bit to continue carrying our goods and supplies, albeit at slower pace than before the global pandemic,” Ms Ata said.
The clearance depends on an assessment of documents showing where the ship originated from and its ports of call (in the past 21 days) enroute to Solomon Islands. Also included in the documents are health data (daily temperature of crew), crew information and cargo manifest.
Dr Jimmy said where there is a real risk of COVID transmission, the Exemption Committee will have to consider the risk first.
“Regardless of any economic hardship, if there is a risk with any particular ship then no exemption will be provided. So, there is that fine balance which the Exemption Committee is looking at,” he said.
Dr Jimmy acknowledges that it is good having a representative of the Chamber of Commerce on the Committee.
“The private sector is included because all these cargos that come in for our people to purchase, they come from the private sector. We want to ensure that private sector is represented so that their interest is considered in the decision-making process,” he said.
He clarified that the Committee only deals with ships that request exemption.
The Exemption Committee comprises of two groups of people. The Core group are the four agencies that deal with any inspections on ships, Health quarantine, Agriculture (Biosecurity), Immigration (passports and ensuring people coming in are legally permitted) and Customs.
The rest of the Committee is made of Permanent Secretaries from these Ministries including the Ministry of Infrastructure Development (MID) and the Chamber of Commerce.