COVID trawler crew still suffering aftermath
The crewmembers that gave testimony on Monday all agreed that the subject of COVID-19 came up early in the tour. Several people became ill during the first few days and many colleagues suspected the coronavirus had made it aboard.
Crew claimed in court that the captain repeatedly told them he was in contact with the Westfjords regional epidemiologist and that the decision not to return straight to land for COVID-19 testing was taken in collaboration with the doctor. The epidemiologist also testified to the court and said this was not true: his communication with the captain had been clear and was that sick crewmembers should be brought ashore for testing. The doctor did not follow up on the recommendation, as enforcement is not within his remit, but assumed the ship returned to shore—until three weeks later when the captain got in touch again. By that point, a majority of the crew were sick and there was little doubt as to the cause, even without testing.
The captain’s assurances over communication with the doctor apparently soothed many crew, at least one of whom decided not to contact the authorities personally as a result. Another crewman told the inquiry he would never even have considered going behind the captain’s back and contacting health authorities directly.
The epidemiologist told the inquiry he was then surprised to see Júlíus Geirmundsson head straight back out to sea after COVID testing was complete. His instruction had been to not dock but to remain close to shore.
Crewmembers were not agreed in their testimony on whether or not they had been forced to work while sick. The captain never directly ordered anyone to work, though there was a good deal of pressure applied and the possibility of losing their jobs weighed heavy on many onboard.
Those crew who were asked all confirmed that an order came from the bridge not to discuss the sickness onboard with the media or on social media.
Many crewmembers are still suffering the effects of their illness and are unfit for work. Many describe psychological repercussions as well as physical ones.
Communication between the captain and the fishing company remains unclear, with at least one crew member claiming the captain’s actions were largely directed by the company, eager for a large catch.
A timeline of events as known so far:
19th October, news first breaks that the majority of crew aboard Júlíus Geirmundsson, operated from Ísafjörður by Hraðfrystihúsið Gunnvör, likely had COVID-19. The ship had been at sea for three weeks, even though flu symptoms had been apparent since early on.
20th October, testing shows that 19 of 25 on board have the coronavirus.
21st October, HG releases a statement saying that in light of the information now at hand, it would have been best to bring the ship in earlier so that crew could be tested.
22nd October, the crew are allowed to return to land and confirmation comes the same day that 22 of 25 crew are now infected. A statement from the seamen’s association claims the fishing company rejected repeated calls from the epidemiologist to return to land with the sick crew.
23rd October, descriptions emerge of some crew having been extremely ill on board, with high fevers and breathing difficulties. The same day, the Westfjords local union claims the crew had been forcibly held at sea, working while sick, and while infection was allowed to spread rapidly on board.
24th October, the first crewmember comes forth to talk to the media. He said it had been hard to watch the condition of his most poorly shipmates disintegrate.
25th October, in the wake of that interview on RÚV, the CEO of Hraðfrystihúsið Gunnvör, Einar Valur Kristjánsson, also appears in interview. He says it was a serious mistake not to contact the coastguard as soon as crew started becoming ill. It was the management’s assessment at the time that safety was not being compromised by continuing to fish while some crew were sick. The same day, the Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture said he was shocked by the whole affair.
26th October, Westfjords police begin a criminal investigation.
27th October, five unions representing crew join forces to try and bring charges against the captain and the company.
28th October, police complete interviews with all crew.
17th November, the crew release a statement of no confidence in the captain, calling on him to resign control of the ship.
23rd November, the maritime inquiry takes place at the Westfjords District Court.