The North Sea's main trade body has appealed for offshore workers to be considered as a higher priority in the next phase of the UK’s Covid-19 vaccination programme, after recent outbreaks of coronavirus on oil and gas platforms, including one that led to a halt in production.

The call from Oil & Gas UK (OGUK) comes after operator Ithaca Energy shut in output last week at its FPF-1 floating production facility, located 240 kilometres east of Aberdeen, after some workers tested positive.

The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) said on Tuesday that 17 positive cases of Covid have so far been confirmed in this outbreak.

'Must be considered a priority'

OGUK health and safety director Trevor Stapleton told Upstream: “Incidents like this highlight the fact that despite the robust procedures in place, the unique nature of working and living conditions offshore pose a challenge to our workforce and therefore they must be considered a priority in the next phase of the UK’s vaccination programme.

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“This would allow us to return to pre-Covid 19 manning levels and continue to meet the UK’s energy needs in a safe and efficient manner as well as play a key role in the transition to a lower-carbon future.

“The wellbeing of our workforce remains the top priority and by ensuring that preventative measures such as of face coverings, social distancing measures at work and at home and in the majority of cases, testing, remain robust, operators can reduce the risk of the virus getting offshore."

Stapleton clarified that OGUK was not asking for offshore workers to "jump the queue" for vaccinations ahead of those most at risk or key workers.

However, he emphasised the critical role energy workers play in ensuring secure energy supplies into the UK, especially during the current cold-snap, which has seen large parts of the country blanketed by snow.

HSE in contact

An HSE spokesperson said: “HSE is aware of the situation at the FPF-1 oil production vessel and is in contact with Ithaca Energy to ensure transmission risk of coronavirus are brought under control.”

Ithaca said it was “moving to minimum manning, conducting a thorough deep clean, and implementing testing of those essential personnel remaining on board the platform”.

“We will not seek to restart production until we can start up in a safe and controlled manner,” said a spokesperson.

One worker was initially medically evacuated by helicopter on 19 January after displaying coronavirus symptoms and later tested positive onshore.

All of that worker’s close contacts on board were then isolated from the rest of the crew and were also later flown off the platform.

A further three crew members were flown off on 20 January 2021 after displaying symptoms. All later tested positive, with others since also testing positive.

Minimum staffing until at least end of March

Stapleton said operators generally are still working with minimum staffing levels and numbers are unlikely to start rising again until at least the end of the first quarter.

North Sea oil and gas operators began moves to reduce non-essential workers in March last year to limit the spread of the virus and to protect staff.

Before the crisis, about 11,500 workers were offshore at any given time.

This fell initially to about 7000 people in April, May and June before increasing to just above 9000 in July, where it has remained, apart from an expected fall for about three weeks over the Christmas period.

Meanwhile, HSE has also reminded North Sea operators of their obligations to protect the offshore workforce from major accident risks and Covid-19 infections.

HSE Energy Division director Chris Flint has written to inform operators that inspectors will continue to travel offshore to carry out planned inspections and to investigate incidents even as the UK remains under lockdown.

'Essential' operators manage risks

The reminder comes after Offshore Petroleum Regulator for Environment & Decommissioning (OPRED), the offshore environmental regulator, said on 7 January it was temporarily pausing offshore visits.

Flint wrote “it is essential” HSE ensures that operators continue to effectively manage major accident hazards while also complying with health and safety at work legislation and requirements to manage and control workplace risks.

“Whilst our default position is to mobilise offshore to deliver our intervention plan, we recognise that in exceptional circumstances, judged on a case by case basis, this may not be possible and instead we may undertake a virtual visit,” Flint said.

“This includes protecting the workforce from the risk of Covid-19 infection in the workplace.”

Covid mitigation measures

Earlier this month, HSE told all UK businesses it would be continuing its regulatory activities, including checking that Covid-secure measures have been implemented in workplaces.

The North Sea industry has implemented a number of measures aimed at keeping Covid-19 off oil and gas platforms.

This includes testing of workers before they embark on flights to offshore facilities. Some 23 operators are now carrying out routine tests.

Helicopter passenger categories

Since March last year, OGUK and helicopter operators have been categorising passengers depending on their health.

Category A passengers have no symptoms and can travel on normal crew change flights.

Category B passengers are those who have no symptoms but have been in contact with a worker who is showing symptoms. These can travel on normal crew change flights, albeit they need to be socially distanced from other passengers, meaning these flights will have fewer passengers.

Category C passengers have displayed mild symptoms and need to be flown ashore separately, usually in specially adapted aircraft.

Category D, the most serious, have a potentially life-threatening condition and need to be evacuated in a coastguard search and rescue helicopter.

Recent weeks have seen greater numbers of Category B passengers being transported from platforms to shore. This includes 52 passengers two weeks ago.

Weekly Category C passenger numbers have remained below 10 since the early weeks of the pandemic, excluding one week in November when 11 passengers were flown back to shore.

Figures for the most recent week are not yet available.

On 4 January UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a new national Covid-19 lockdown in England, instructing people to stay at home to contain a more contagious variant of the coronavirus.

On the same day, Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said people would face a legal requirement to stay at home except for essential purposes, similar to the lockdown imposed at the start of the pandemic in March last year.