Maintaining lifeline services during a pandemic

Robbie Drummond tells Justin Merrigan about CalMac’s Covid-19 response and how it has continued to provide vital services to the island communities on Scotland’s west coast

Maintaining lifeline services during a pandemic
CalMac has continued to operate its services on Scotland's west coast during the pandemic

Since the Covid-19 lockdown began in the UK in March, Scottish lifeline operator Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) has faced a particular challenge of trying to protect vulnerable island communities from infection, while meeting the need to ensure fragile island economies continue to function.

CalMac reacted quickly, reducing its timetable to an essential lifeline service, operating at less than 30 per cent of the normal winter timetable. What then followed for the company, the UK’s largest ferry operator, was a reduction in passenger demand to four per cent of normal traffic volume, motor vehicles to nine per cent and commercial traffic to 45 per cent.

“Our islands rely on our lifeline services for every aspect of their day-to-day lives,” explains Robbie Drummond, managing director of CalMac Ferries. “Services that could not be delivered without our staff working tirelessly on the frontline throughout this crisis.”

Uniquely, the vast majority of people that work for CalMac live on islands on the network, so they share the same fears and concerns and worries as anyone else who lives there. Only people who really needed to travel were allowed to board, such as emergency, NHS and utilities workers, along with those responsible for food and fuel deliveries.

“We very quickly moved to an essential lifeline timetable to try and balance the protection of people’s health while continuing to support local economies,” says Drummond. “We moved to card-only transactions and we issued prompt online refunds to all passengers affected.

“Checks were carried and thankfully people heeded the advice given, so our traffic dropped across our 28 routes by 95 per cent and infection rates on our islands stayed very low. We were assisted throughout this period by our client Transport Scotland, which provided clear guidance on travel regulations as well as support to help us cope as passenger revenue fell away.”

Although travel restrictions have eased, allowing CalMac to introduce a new and more open timetable for the rest of the summer, social distancing restrictions still apply on the numbers it can safely carry and, at the time of publication, it was back up to around 35 per cent vessel capacity.

“Our priority now continues to be to keep island communities safe while maintaining lifeline services and facilitating the gradual opening up of tourist traffic again to support local economies,” says Drummond. “To ensure this balance can be achieved we have implemented a strict new onboard regime to keep our staff and our customers safe, including detailed cleaning regimes every 90 minutes, implementation of physical distancing, signage, clear customer announcements and the use of personal protective equipment. All passengers need to wear face coverings in inside areas and our onboard food offering is restricted.”

The current limited timetable is set remain in place until 18 October when the company expects to return to a normal winter timetable.

“I’m confident that we have done all that we can to meet the needs of all our passengers during this difficult period and can only hope that circumstances will allow us to get back to something approaching normality for next summer,” says Drummond. “One thing that has shone through throughout this crisis is the sense of community that we have here on the west coast of Scotland. We really are a CalMac family. Many of our employees live in the communities we support, so they really know what the priorities are for their friends and neighbours. Everyone has pulled together to ensure life continued as normally as possible while keeping everyone safe from infection.

“The messages of support we’ve had from the public have been overwhelming and this acknowledgement of staff efforts is a welcome recognition of the work they have been doing during this most difficult of times.”

This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2020 issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

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Justin Merrigan
By Justin Merrigan
16 November 2020

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