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Thousands of fishermen are fearing for their livelihoods due to soon-to-be-adopted strict new medical rules for crews, fishing groups have warned.

New International Labour Organisation guidelines on medical fitness at sea have been gradually applied to different classes of UK fishing vessels since 2018.

The rules will be extended to the smaller inshore fleet – consisting of under 10 metre-long boats, at the end of the year – said Mike Cohen, CEO of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations.

The guidelines aim to reduce the risk of going to sea for fishermen and other groups, such as the RNLI. All crew members will need to have a medical certificate in order to continue to work at sea.

However, uncertainty over the scope of the rules and whether individuals could lose their jobs if they fail to pass fitness tests were creating “a huge amount of anxiety and distress in the industry”, said Cohen.

Those with diabetes, high blood pressure or a high body mass index could all fall foul of the guidelines, he added, despite there being few if any instances of “lots of people being rescued because of their diabetes or their weight, and the RNLI have backed me up on that”.

The UK government had picked the “highest possible standard of fitness, the one that’s used for people who work basically in deep sea vessels in the Merchant Marine,” Cohen pointed out.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency moved “to reassure people that introducing medical certificates is not to prevent existing fishermen from working”.

It was “supporting and preparing fishermen in the lead up to this requirement coming into force”, a spokeswoman told The Grocer this week, while stressing so-called ‘grandfather rights’, which consider pre-existing medical conditions, were also in place.

However, Cohen warned the “exacting” guidelines had created significant problems, which remained, despite the fact that it was now less than two months before they came into force.

It was “quite a different thing” to be on a vessel thousands of miles from land and two weeks away from medical care versus somebody who worked two miles off the beach, he claimed.

“This is a higher standard than you have to meet in order to work at height or to drive an HGV or an ambulance, and it is causing a lot of problems with people not passing the initial assessment,” he said.

He pointed to an NFFO member in Wales failing a test for a history of sinusitis 20 years ago “because that’s a condition that for some reason is on the list as meaning you’re not automatically fit to work”.

Another member, he recalled, had been told she could not work because she was in the early stages of pregnancy.

Cohen also highlighted that many who were told they could continue to work were told they could only do so under restrictive circumstances, such as having someone drive the boat for them.

“It’s like telling a lorry driver you can carry work on working, but you can only drive on B roads on a sunny day and somebody else has to press the brake,” he explained.

“If you’re a single handed, self-employed fisher, you can’t afford to pay somebody else to come and drive you around all day,” he added. “Yes, I’ve told you that you can keep working but it’s physically impossible to comply with the rules and that’s what we’re seeing a lot of as well.”

He said it was a “ridiculous suggestion” as these are not “businesses that are making fortunes” and they “just don’t have the money to do it”. 

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