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Shell evacuates more North Sea project workers on COVID-19 outbreak

Highlights

OGUK calls for self-isolation exemption

Shell Shearwater infections reach 26, but rate slowing

No 'blanket exemption' for sector or roles: government

Nearly 150 workers have been evacuated or are due for evacuation from Shell's Shearwater project in the North Sea since a COVID-19 outbreak emerged at the end of June, the company said July 20, as the industry called for an exemption from self-isolation rules for offshore workers.

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So far, 26 people at the Shearwater oil and gas hub have tested positive for COVID-19, with another 122 categorized as having been "close contacts" of those infected, Shell told S&P Global Platts.

Most have already been flown to shore, with a small number isolating at the facility prior to returning to shore, Shell said, adding that the spread of infection was slowing, with only five cases detected in the last seven days of the outbreak.

Shearwater is the focus of concerns that rising UK infection rates could spread to the offshore oil and gas sector, which normally provides 1 million b/d of oil including the Brent and Forties benchmark grades, and meets about half the country's gas needs.

Offshore workforce numbers have recently recovered to well over 10,000, following a steep fall last year in response the pandemic, according to industry figures.

Shearwater is currently shut down for summer maintenance and for work on the redevelopment project, which is central to Shell's realignment of its North Sea strategy.

The project is intended to redirect gas flows from a cluster of North Sea fields, some of them newly developed and operated by other companies, to St Fergus in Scotland and on to petrochemical facilities, rather than being sent ashore at Bacton, eastern England.

The project had already suffered delays due to the pandemic and last year's price crash, having originally been scheduled to come on stream in 2020.

Regulatory constraint

On July 19, the government announced some critical workers would be exempted from rules requiring self-isolation for those who come into close contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus. However, oil and gas workers appeared not to be covered by the exemption. A number of government departments contacted on the issue had yet to clarify the situation.

Industry group Oil & Gas UK has reiterated warnings of disruption resulting from high numbers of workers self-isolating, notably at onshore oil and gas terminals.

For the general population, current self-isolation rules are due to end on Aug 16.

"Following the changes to 'close contact' regulations for some critical workers we encourage governments to ensure this is extended to offshore oil and gas workers," OGUK health, safety and environment director Trevor Stapleton told S&P Global Platts. "For industry, maintaining offshore personnel numbers allows us to meet operational demands and ensure security of the UK's energy supply."

He added that "our primary concern remains the health and safety of our workforce offshore. As cases rise across the UK, we encourage all colleagues offshore to practice good personal hygiene and social distancing wherever possible."