CalMac: Confusion over ‘essential travel only’ advice for ferries as Covid absences mount

FERRY users have been urged to consider using lifeline services after CalMac warned of further disruptions to lifeline ferry services, with more than one in five staff members now in self-isolation due to Covid.

Mairi Gougeon, the minister for rural affairs and islands, advised “essential travel only” after the state-controlled ferry operator warned that Covid cases were “more than double” the number of absentees due to the virus at Hogmanay.

This led to an “essential service” ferry schedule, cutting ten of CalMac’s 26 routes, including the introduction of a single vessel instead of the dual schedule for the service to and from Brodick on Arran – one of the Scotland’s busiest routes.

CalMac warned that the increasing number of ship crews and port personnel either testing positive, isolating themselves or awaiting Covid test results has meant that the ferry operator “cannot operate at full capacity at this time”.

But ferry users were confused by the minister’s comments, as it turned out not to be the ferry operator’s advice.

A user group official said, “That’s not the advice as far as I know. And it’s certainly not my understanding of the situation.”

READ MORE: Ferry chaos sparks fears for lifeline supplies as Arran only has enough fuel left for nine cars

Sam Bourne, chairman of the Arran Ferry Action Group said: “Mairi Gougeon appears to have issued additional travel advice asking ‘consider whether your ferry journey is essential’.

“This is not our interpretation of the current CalMac travel advice. Or Scotrail, for example.

“Many islanders are currently only making what are actually ‘essential journeys’ precisely because of the current sail-for-sail travel difficulties and the risk of being unable to travel or stranded on the mainland. If indeed the advice is now ‘essential ferry journeys only’ , which additional support would be made available to hospitality businesses and other affected, who have already been “violated by the endless disruption,” as emphasized by Jamie Greene MSP.”

The Cabinet Secretary gave the advice when West Scottish MSP Katy Clark asked what the Scottish government was doing to support Arran in the wake of ferry cancellations caused by staff absenteeism due to Covid and bad weather.

The Herald on Sunday revealed that the ‘ferry chaos’ had raised concerns about shortages of essential supplies due to a series of service restrictions that left Arran nearly out of fuel.

Problems with sailings cancellations and fuel storage problems left just 500 liters of fuel left on Arran for visitors and residents last Wednesday – just enough to fill nine family cars.

Ms Gougeon said: “I just want to say that we are of course aware of the impact of the pandemic and Brexit on Arran and other island communities.

“And I know how frustrating that is when ferry services are affected at short notice.

“I think we should not lose sight of, or lose sight of, the fact that these services are lifelines, because it is clear that children need them to go to school and residents need them to access mainland services Public services and local businesses need them to get their employees back and forth.

“And we just wanted to take this opportunity to emphasize that we need everyone to carefully consider the current advice, which is to stay at home as much as possible and whether the ferry journey is essential because every time someone takes the virus aboard a ferry it puts the health of crews at risk which then puts the service at risk and that has significantly bigger consequences, some of which we’ve seen recently.

“And we all need to work together in the short term to minimize the impact of the variant and try to maintain these lifeline services for island communities.”

The cabinet secretary was also unable to meet with passenger groups to “discuss the challenges” after being invited by Ms Clark.

She said: “I mean, I’m sure the Member will be aware that a lot of these matters, particularly with regard to ferries, are the responsibility of the Transport Secretary, but I try to do as much as I can personally with my responsibilities and my general responsibilities for the islands.”

CalMac said on Wednesday that the latest figures show that 151 crew members and 35 port personnel are currently unavailable due to Covid. This equates to a Covid absenteeism rate of 20.3% among all staff and is in addition to a non-coronavirus absenteeism rate of 6%.

When CalMac brought in its “essential services” ferry schedule at Hogmanay, it said 93 crew members and 18 port personnel were absent — nine percent of crews and five percent of port staff, on top of a 6 percent non-coronavirus absence rate.

Last week, the overhaul of one ferry was postponed to Friday amid concerns over supplies at Arran, which was hit by a series of service cancellations.

Friday saw another raft of sailings depart after a new Covid outbreak left the island without dedicated service for much of the day.

Announce Scotland:

Five food trucks, stranded for up to two days, managed to leave Arran last Wednesday, as other visitors said they could not leave after services on the island came to a halt the previous weekend.

Questions about the resilience of CalMac’s aging ferry fleet grew after services were halted due to high winds, causing 11 lifelines to be suspended from CalMac ferry routes on Thursday last week.

Arran ferry users wondered why the Gourock ‘harbour’ was not being used as their services had been suspended, despite £2.5m being spent on it to reduce bad weather cancellations.

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