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Japan eyes international rules for cruise ship outbreaks

  • May 2, 2020
  • , The Japan News , 5:20 p.m.
  • English Press

The government will carry out research to create international rules for infectious disease outbreaks on cruise ships, as the responsibility of relevant countries is unclear. This is in response to the delay in action over a mass infection of the new coronavirus on the Diamond Princess cruise ship.


The government intends to compile a report on the research by March next year and present it to international bodies and other entities.


The Diamond Princess initially departed Yokohama Port on Jan. 20. Even after a passenger who disembarked the cruise ship tested positive for the virus on Feb. 1, parties were held, restaurants remained open and other activities continued on the vessel.


The ship arrived at Yokohama Port on Feb. 3, and on Feb. 5 the government urged passengers to stay in their rooms. All the same, more than 700 passengers were infected with the virus.


The Diamond Princess is owned by a shipping company in the United States, but its nationality is British. The crew members and passengers were from 56 countries and regions. There is no international rule for which country should take responsibility for quarantining and measures to prevent the spread of the virus. This was one reason for the delay.


On the massive Costa Atlantica cruise ship that is anchored at Nagasaki Port in Nagasaki, 148 out of 623 crew members turned out to have the virus. It is owned by an Italian company and registered in Italy. The crew members are from more than 30 countries. The ship entered the port for repair work on Jan. 29 and remains anchored there even though the repairs are complete.


Based on the flag state principle under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, the flag state has exclusive jurisdiction over a ship on the high seas.


However, as ships tend to be registered with countries where the relevant taxes are lower, there are many ships with a “flag of convenience,” meaning they have different countries of registry and operation. Therefore, it is said that some countries of registry do not take appropriate action as the interested party.


Also, as the flag state and Japan compete for jurisdiction within Japanese territorial waters, it is not clear to what extent jurisdiction can be extended to the ship in question, even for the purpose of preventing an outbreak spreading.


The Japanese government obtained permission from the captain of the Diamond Princess while dealing with the situation, as Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Katsunobu Kato said that the ministry was in a position to provide advice, while the captain controls everything on a ship.


A senior Foreign Ministry official said, “If the country where a port call is made is entirely responsible for a ship, no countries would allow a ship with a mass infection to call at port.”


The government, realizing the necessity of international rules for that purpose, has allocated ¥60 million for the research in the fiscal 2020 supplementary budget.


It will entrust private research institutions with surveying those involved in cruise ship operations and countries such as the United States that have dealt with other cases of mass infections on cruise ships. It then intends to compile the report at a meeting of experts on public hygiene and maritime laws.


Based on the report, the government intends to urge countries and international bodies worldwide to adopt the rules, including the International Maritime Organization and the World Health Organization.

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