First Minister “not listening” on ferries

Stornoway councillor Charlie Nicolson has accused the Scottish Government and the First Minister of “not listening” to the concerns of islanders over the impact of a lack of space on mainland ferries  on the local community and economy. v.1

Tuesday, 29th June 2021, 6:12 pm
Charlie Nicolson: Government isn't listening

by Peter Urpeth

Local Democracy Reporter

Stornoway councillor Charlie Nicolson has accused the Scottish Government and the First Minister of “not listening” to the concerns of islanders over the impact of a lack of space on mainland ferries  on the local community and economy.

He said that the inability to book spaces to travel to the mainland was having a series impact on island sporting development with teams unable to travel to mainland events and said that some were looking to hire RIBs to get to the mainland, a situation Cllr Nicolson described as “unacceptable”.

Cllr Angus McCormack also raised the issue of local people being unable to book travel on the ferry as foot passengers to travel off island for work, and described the situation as being “utterly ridiculous”.

The Comhairle’s Chief Executive told the meeting that the current limit on passengers numbers due to Covid-19 restrictions on the MV Loch Seaforth meant that only 35 per-cent of passenger space is available.

Cllr McCormack said that the Scottish Government was being ”unduly harsh” in their interpretation of the rules about the number of people who can travel on the ferry as passengers.   

Leader of the Comhairle, Cllr Roddy MacKay said that the Scottish Government “didn’t seem to realise the impact the families were experiencing “a double whammy” local when many had been looking forward to “a release” with the ending of Covid restrictions and being able to travel backwards and forwards from the islands “and when the opportunity arises they cannot do it as there is no capacity” on the ferries, and added:

“There doesn’t seem to be quite the realisation of the impacts that I would like government to have at the minute. This is an issue that we have to keep battling.

“At the moment it’s the social distancing on the ferry and I’m not hearing Calmac calling for it to be removed to allow more people – maybe they are doing that but I’m not hearing it. That is the problem at the minute and it is an in tolerable situation.”

Cllr Nicolson said: “The situation with the transport is dire. Let’s be very very honest. You used the word there Leader ‘battling’ – we’ve been battling for years…”

“Government are not listening, they are not listening […]

“We really need to take this to another level, we have tried diplomacy, tried it and tried it and tried it. The First Minister isn’t listening. The Minister for Transport is listening. I haven’t heard a single comment from the Minister of the Islands about the situation in the islands.

“Our people are struggling just now in getting across on the Calmac system. It is not acceptable and it’s not fair, Leader. We have to take it to another level.

“All I get back when I contact different people, MSP or however it is, is let’s have a meeting. Well I’m fed up with let’s have a meeting. Let’s get it sorted and get it sorted for out people.

“I feel as a council we really have to go to the First Minister again and say what are you going to do? And get this sorted.”

A spokesperson for the Scottish Government said: “The First Minister confirmed to Parliament that following the review of physical distancing, our assessment is that, although we remain in a situation where we must continue to ease with caution, we will target a staged process for the lifting of legal restrictions on physical distancing.  

“The staged process will allow for physical distancing to be reduced to one metre in outdoor settings from 19 July and removed altogether as a legal requirement from 9 August.

“The current guidance is already for one metre physical distancing on public transport. We will continue to engage with stakeholders across sectors, including public transport operators as restrictions are eased to assist with forward-planning, taking into account the particular risks and needs of each setting. We continue to engage with ferry operators and island stakeholders on this, as well as other issues impacting the recovery of the island economies from the impact of the COVID pandemic.”  

A spokesperson for Calmac said that the company “…will comply with any rules set out by the Scottish Government, as all transport operators are expected to do”, and reiterated a statement they had sent to the Stornoway gazette earlier in the week. 

It said that the under the terms of the Health Protection (Coronavirus) (Restrictions and Requirements) (Local Levels) (Scotland) Regulations 2020, “legally, passengers must maintain at least a one metre distance from each other when travelling with us.

“We are complying with these regulations by determining the maximum number of passengers we can safely have on board. 

“We used deck plans to plot the layout of the vessel against the space requirements for each passenger. 

“An additional percentage was applied on top of this to allow for household groups travelling together. The resulting number is different for each vessel depending on their size and configuration, but is a lot less than we would have available during usual times.

“This approach has been examined and verified as being fit for purpose by our contracted infection risk specialists, who are experienced and qualified Environmental Health Officers. Moreover, the approach was the subject of external audit analysis, which contributed to the awarding of the DNV ‘MyCare’ certification to Calmac, the first such ferry company in the UK to be so awarded.”

When asked if the company had made representations to the Scottish Government to ease the restrictions, a Calmac company spokesperson said that that they would not be adding to their earlier statement.