UK North Sea workers are to face tougher restrictions travelling to offshore platforms in a bid to combat the spread of the deadly coronavirus and protect the country's oil and gas supplies, the industry's main trade association has said.

An industry-wide Pandemic Steering Group has been meeting under the auspices of trade body Oil & Gas UK (OGUK).

New policies are being introduced to prevent anyone suspected of having the Covid-19 virus from spreading it among the North Sea workforce.

The industry is also making sure any worker who is offshore and found to have the virus can get the right medical treatment.

OGUK is holding weekly meetings with the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the Oil & Gas Authority (OGA) regulator.

Given the challenges of managing any confirmed case of Covid-19 in confined offshore installations, where hundreds of workers can be working in close contact, industry policy is to have restrictions on travelling to offshore installations, OGUK's health and safety director Trevor Stapleton told reporters during a briefing.

Developing protocols

Commercial helicopter operators currently will not transport anyone infected with coronavirus, Stapleton said.

As a result, OGUK is working with Health Protection Scotland to develop protocols to ensure workers who need medical treatment onshore can get airlifted if necessary although some workers if they become infected may need to be transferred by boat.

“We think we're close to getting a solution such that we could remove someone that has been confirmed [as having coronavirus] from offshore back onshore for appropriate treatment,” he said.

It has now been decided any worker who has visited anywhere on the UK government's list of affected countries will not be allowed to travel offshore for at least 14 days after their return, Stapleton said.

This includes any country classified as having a Category 1 or Category 2 risk level and includes parts of China, Iran, South Korea, Italy and many countries in Asia.

Up to now anyone with a recent travel history in a Category 2 country faced only "precautionary advice" not to travel.

“That it's no longer precautionary, it's a policy that anyone that's been to a Category 2 country, regardless of whether they're showing symptoms or not, should not travel offshore," said Stapleton.

Also, anyone who has come into contact with an infected person and anyone else showing symptoms of a cough, fever and shortness of breath will also be prohibited from travelling.

OGUK has also asked the government if tests on anyone working in “critical infrastructure” such as the oil and gas industry can be prioritised.

Temperature checks

The group also expects to decide in the coming days if all workers travelling offshore will face temperature screening at heliports.

Equinor said on Wednesday it is looking into suspected cases of Corvid-19 at both its Mariner A platform off the UK and Oseberg field centre off Norway after already confirming one of its workers on the Martin Linge facility has been infected with the virus.

Stapleton cautioned there was uncertainty if this was effective in picking up all cases and could in some instances provide "false positive tests".

North Sea operators have already been facing problems in obtaining important pieces of equipment from Italy, such as valves, Stapleton said.

UK North Sea output is about 1.7 million barrels of oil equivalent per day.

With operators in the UK North Sea, gearing for the spring and summer maintenance seasons, OGUK is discussing with operators if some non-essential could be postponed to next year, Stapleton said.

Many operators are also expected to carry out maintenance programmes to coincide with a three-week shutdown of the Forties Pipeline System (FPS) in June.

FPS operator Ineos is planning to close the pipeline, which carries about 450,000 barrels per day of oil from about 80 fields, for three weeks from 16 June, forcing operators whose facilities rely on the pipeline for exports to shut in production.

Upstream reported last year OGUK was establishing a cross-industry group to co-ordinate work, which is expected to increase pressure on the UK oil and gas supply chain.

Stapleton said OGUK's member companies are implementing their individual pandemic response and business continuity plans to ensure that industry can respond to the pandmeic effectively.

OGUK said it will share advice with industry as it becomes available.

A BEIS spokesperson said: “The UK is extremely well prepared for these types of outbreaks and will continue to take all necessary precautions to protect the public, including engaging with key industry partners to discuss their preparedness planning.”