‘I am immensely proud of my staff but we don’t always get things right’

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CalMac has faced heavy criticism for disruption to the lifeline Arran ferry service during the pandemic. That come to a head on October 10, the day of the ferry fiasco which has now been the subject of two reports – one by CalMac – and the other by the Arran Ferry Committee reported in last week’s Arran Banner. Here CalMac managing director Robbie Drummond, writing exclusively for the Banner, is given a right of reply.

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CalMac staff come to work every day with the aim of providing communities on Scotland’s west coast with a high-quality service; and with public safety as their top priority.

Over the past two years this goal has been placed under a level of stress that none of us have ever experienced before.

As a result of public health guidance, we have had to operate services at around a third of normal capacity during large parts of 2020 and 2021.

Even now we still operate under guidance to help stop the spread, and strict infection control remains in place – which can cause disruption to our customers and communities.

One of these occasions was on October 10, when services on one leg of the crossing between Ardrossan and Brodick were lost for one day due to port staff at Ardrossan either testing positive for Covid or being required to self-isolate.

The cause was not a lack of forward planning, as was reported in this newspaper last week. It was due to strict public health protection rules.

Covid planning has been rigorous and at the forefront of operations since pre-lockdown, and we have robust contingency plans in place, managing many Covid incidents on vessels and ports.

We are required to abide by NHS contact tracing protocols, which on October 10 resulted in nearly all available staff having to be absent from Ardrossan.

On this occasion NHS Test and Protect extended the close contact period to 72 hours rather than the normal 48 hours and we were dealing with separate cases in both the ticketing and shore side staff.

Due to the rules regarding close contacts self-isolating while waiting for mandatory PCR test results, we were then in the difficult position of having almost no staff available to berth vessels and manage passengers.

We are bound by the strict Port and Marine Safety Code set by the Department of Transport and the Marine Coastguard Agency (MCA).

The MCA further require a strict count of passengers and vehicles using a pre-approved and audited method.

Despite this sudden and massive loss of trained staff, the service was reinstated after just one day.

This was thanks to dedicated staff across the network who travelled to Ardrossan to ensure disruption was kept to the absolute minimum.

Local managers and staff should be commended, and I am extremely grateful for the way in which they rallied round to help.

Traffic and passengers were diverted via Lochranza-Claonaig as an alternative way to get on and off Arran; and while using this route causes long detours, it ensures people can travel to and from the island.

Following a review of the October 10 incident, we asked the Scottish government if we could use either expedited PCR testing for lifeline ferry workers, or permission to use quicker LAMP testing to allow non-symptomatic self-isolators to return to work with minimal delay.

However, we have been told that the determination of close contacts will continue to be made by Test and Protect personnel and that we remain subject to their testing protocols.

We always review our procedures after any disruption to learn any lessons and improve our service in the event such an incident re-occurs, and we have done so on this occasion.

In response to the Arran Ferry Committee, we have already amended our passenger communication protocols and in future we will make it clear that the Cloanaig-Lochranza route has limited capacity and passengers may be subject to queuing.

All the staff at CalMac understand the impact these unexpected disruptions can have on residents and businesses – many of our colleagues live within island communities and know how vital lifeline links are.

It is extremely frustrating therefore to hear about our staff being subjected to personal abuse from a minority of customers; which is impacting their mental health, causing distress and preventing them from carrying out the job they are committed to.

I am sure the vast majority of residents agree that this behaviour is utterly unacceptable.

We have worked every day, throughout the pandemic, to ensure that island residents and businesses get the ferry service they need and deserve.

I am immensely proud of all of our staff.

We recognise that we don’t always get things right, but we are working hard to try and prevent any incidents like October 10 happening again.