Nfld. & Labrador

Q & A: Portugal's ambassador to Canada on the COVID-19 cases on ships anchored off Newfoundland

Here & Now’s Anthony Germain speaks with Portuguese ambassador João da Camara about the fishing vessels and the events that led them to Newfoundland and Labrador.

João da Camara talks about the conditions of the crews on board and how families are coping back home

The Santa Cristina, a Portuguese fishing vessel, was anchored in Bay Bulls. (Chelsea Jacobs/CBC)

Newfoundland and Labrador has not reported any new COVID-19 cases on land since July 5, but the province's active case count climbed to 50 in recent weeks on outbreaks on three ships anchored off Newfoundland's coast.

Two of those ships, the Princess Santa Joana anchored in Conception Bay, and the Santa Cristina, which was anchored in Bay Bulls, are Portuguese fishing vessels.

The Princess Santa Joana reported 31 cases of COVID-19, while the Santa Cristina reported four cases. Two crew members, one from each ship, are in hospital.

The Santa Cristina and a third ship, the Iver Ambition, have now left the province, leaving just the Princess Santa Joana in Newfoundland waters.

On Thursday, Here & Now's Anthony Germain spoke with Portugal ambassador João da Camara about the fishing vessels and the events that led them to Newfoundland and Labrador.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

AG: What is the embassy doing to provide assistance to the sick crew members here? 

A: Two Portuguese fishing ships discovered they had COVID-19 cases on board. Because the country they were closest to was Canada, they decided to come here, specifically to Newfoundland. In both cases where the fishermen were infected they came to shore and were treated. Two of them remain in hospital because their condition was a matter of concern. They're still in intensive care.

We got in touch with the families of the fishermen who were at the hospital to make the bridge between them and the doctors, a thing that we are still doing. And of course, we offered the captains and crews all the help they needed.… One of the ships has already sailed to the fishing banks and resumed their fishing activity, even if they have still some cases on board, which are isolated, monitored and don't require particular care. And the other, because it has more active cases on board, is still anchored in Newfoundland. 

Q: Does Portugal have any policies in terms of vaccinating the crew members? We're a year and a half into a pandemic and you have a multi-national crew that wasn't vaccinated.

A: I don't think they have. They are supposed to have been tested before coming on board — and apparently they were — but, of course, the testing is not 100 per cent safe. And sometimes … people are infected and the tests don't show. Maybe this was what happened. I don't have complete proof of anything. I just presume that something like that would have happened.

Q: In your briefings as ambassador, I noticed in the Portuguese media the owner of the fishing vessel said when they got the first reports of symptoms he dismissed this as nothing more than the flu. What kind of investigation is your government doing into the situation before the ships actually got to Newfoundland?

A: I don't have information about that. All our action here is to deal with the situation here. In Portugal they are making some inquiries and I think there is a report being prepared, but I don't have the conclusions yet.

He's been very criticized because of it. And there's an inquiry about that in Portugal. Let's see what the conclusion [is], if it's true or if it's not true. If he was careless or if he was not careless, I don't know. We still don't have that information. 

Portugal's ambassador to Canada, João da Camara, says Portuguese authorities are in contact with the crews on the ships and their families. (CBC)

Q: How is it possible that in international fishing we're sending crews, some from Russia, some from Indonesia, and they're not vaccinated? It's surprising to hear, especially now that we have 30 people from your country that are sick. It raises a lot of questions. 

A: They weren't all vaccinated. But sometimes it's only necessary that one at the start of the trip [will] infect all the others. So it's not the case that 30 came from Portugal infected. They are in a very confined space.

Q: My question is why weren't they all vaccinated?

A: The policy in Portugal is still to vaccinate according to the age. So some of them should have been vaccinated already. I don't have information about that. I don't know if they wanted to be vaccinated. One of the people at the hospital is old enough to be vaccinated already. I don't know if he was. 

Q: What do you think of the fact that that's your country's policy, that you're sending people to this side of the world and they don't have to be vaccinated?

A: I think it's a policy made in Portugal where people aren't vaccinated yet. We have only more or less half of the population completely vaccinated. Like here, you know, you don't have here in Canada any policy to [prevent people from travelling] without being vaccinated.… I think there is not one single country in the world that has that policy. 

The Princess Santa Joana has 31 active cases of COVID-19 among crew members. (Emma Grunwald/CBC)

Q: There is a man here in very serious condition who's on life support. What kind of assistance are you providing to his family? 

A: The assistance is to make the bridge between the family. Once a day, our chancellor of the consulate in Montreal phones the hospital to inquire about the situation, the health condition of the people that are at the hospital and then transmits the answer he gets to the family in Portugal. So it's done on a daily basis.

We have permanent contact also with the other members of the crew that are infected to assess their health conditions. We are permanent contact with the families in Portugal.

Q: Are there any efforts to get family members, especially of this man who is in critical condition, are there any efforts to try and get an exemption so they can travel here?

A: No. They didn't show any will to come. They have been informed about the health condition. If the situation deteriorates then we'll have to assess. But, for the time being, they didn't say anything about coming to Canada.

Q: Any idea when the Princess Santa Joana will be heading back to your country? 

A: No. I don't have any idea. It's up to the ship owner and to the captain of the ship to decide when are they going to sail back. For the time being, they still have a lot of cases on board. So they found that it was better to remain anchored in Newfoundland to see how the situation evolves. I think the moment the cases will be resolved they will go back either to Portugal or the fishing banks.

Q: Is there any sense of embarrassment in Portugal about this story? It's an international story now, as you know we're trying to take care of your citizens because they're not vaccinated. What's your sense of how the story is playing back in your country? 

A: Our first word here is thanks, it's a world of thanks to the authorities in Newfoundland and Labrador. Ever since the 16th century, the Portuguese fishermen [have] come to [the] shores of Newfoundland to fish and often to find shelter.… Once again, the Portuguese fishermen needed help and once again they got the help they needed from the authorities and for that we are very thankful.

The situation is much, much better than it was in the beginning of the year. But it's still a dangerous situation. The virus is not gone. So we have to be very careful.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador