Hurtigruten caught in Corona cover-up

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UPDATED: The humbled boss of Norway’s Hurtigruten cruise and shipping line has admitted to a breakdown in its own routines regarding Corona virus rules for its newly re-launched cruises. That’s led to the suspension of all of Hurtigruten’s so-called “expedition” cruises, after an outbreak of the Corona virus that some Hurtigruten staff tried to cover up.

Hurtigruten CEO Daniel Skjeldam was a confident promoter of his company’s new hybrid exporation cruiseships and vastly expanded global routes in a meeting with foreign correspondents in Oslo last year. He also seized the opportunity to criticize all the huge and environmentally unfriendly cruiseships that were sailing around Norway at the time. Now he’s caught in a Corona outbreak on board one of Hurtigruten’s new vessels, and admits mistakes have been made. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund

Another passenger tested positive to the virus, Covid-19, on Monday after a chaotic weekend since the virus-struck MS Roald Amundsen arrived back in Tromsø early Friday from a cruise to Svalbard. That brings the total number of people who’ve been on board the ship, and are now infected, to 41 including 36 crew members.

“We’re beginning to get control over the outbreak, in terms of knowing how many people on board have been tested and not tested,” Tromsø Mayor Gunnar Wilhelmsen said at a midday press conference. “We’ve had a new positive test since yesterday, of a passenger who’s in Tromsø.”

A total of 47 passengers who don’t live in Tromsø have been put in quarantine in the northern city. More than 400 people who were on one of the Roald Amundsen‘s two week-long Tromsø-Svalbard cruises in late July are affected by the Corona outbreak, along with around 160 crew members, many from the Philippines. Four of them have been admitted to the university hospital in Tromsø for treatment.

Hurtigruten officials including CEO Skjeldam have told Norwegian media that they had followed all national and international regulations. Norway’s TV2, however, reported Monday that the state health directorate disagreed. Filipino crew members, for example, were tested before leaving the Philippines but should have also been tested in Norway before reporting for duty on board the ship, health officials told TV2.

‘Hurtigruten doesn’t want this to come out’
Criticism of how Hurtigruten has handled the outbreak, and its responsibility for it, rose sharply Monday afternoon. Tromsø newspaper Nordlys and state broadcaster NRK both reported on email communication in the middle of last week between Hurtigruten’s communications workers and local health care authorities in the northern town of Hadsel. The local Hadsel authorities needed to send out a public announcement that one of their local residents had tested positive to the Corona virus and his infection was linked to a cruise on Hurtigruten.

“Hurtigruten doesn’t want this to come out, they want to have control of this themselves,” wrote Dr Martin Larsen Drageset of Hadsel Kommune in an email last Wednesday that was obtained by Nordlys and NRK. Drageset disagreed with Hurtigruten’s representative, who claimed there wasn’t enough information to support the theory that the Hadsel man was infected on board one of Hurtigruten’s ships.

Drageset ultimately decided that neither he nor Hadsel were responsible for Hurtigruten’s decisions. Hadsel officials therefore “toned down” and “moderated” their own references to possible sources of the local resident’s infection, even one simply to an unnamed “travel company.” The Hurtigruten connection was omitted from the municipality’s own press release about its new confirmed case of Corona.

Health Minister Bent Høie reacted strongly Monday afternoon to news that Hurtigruten tried to keep Corona infection aboard one of its ships secret. Høie said that his confidence in the cruise and shipping company has been weakened: “Hurtigruten was one of those trying to get the government to open up for this type of  (cruise) activity,” Høie said at a press conference Monday. “Therefore I think it’s sad we’ve landed in this situation.” PHOTO: Forsvaret/Torbjørn Kjosvold

Hadsel’s health officials including Drageset and top medical officer Dr Ingebjørn Bleidvin, however, strongly urged Hurtigruten to warn all its passengers on the Roald Amundsen of the possibility of Corona infection on board as quickly as possible. “We viewed it as highly probable,” Bleidvin told NRK, that the Hadsel man was infected on one of two Hurtigruten ships he’d been on: the Roald Amundsen and MS Trollfjord.

They even claim that the captain of the Roald Amundsen and one of the ship’s three doctors were initially positive to making the information public, but later were apparently overruled by the Hurtigruten communications staff. “They now disagreed that our patient probably had been infected on board,” the Hadsel doctors told NRK. “We made it clear we didn’t agree with that, and that the probability that our patient was infected anywhere other than on Hurtigruten was extremely low.

“We nonetheless went along with Hurtigruten’s clear request that we not involve them in any way in our communication around the case. We didn’t have any authority to force Hurtigruten to do anything, and we alerted the correct channels.” NRK reported that it’s now been 17 days since the Hadsel man, who has declined interview requests, left the MS Trollfjord (on which he’d apparently traveled from Hadsel to Tromsø) to board the Roald Amundsen in Tromsø on July 17. There have been no indications that other Trollfjord passengers or crew have had symptoms or been confirmed with the Corona virus.

‘Taking full responsibility’
Hurtiguten officials had received special permission to restart limited cruise operations to Svalbard and along the Norwegian coast, under strict Corona containment measures. They have repeatedly claimed that “the safety and well-being” of both passengers (whom they consistently call “guests”) and crew “is Hurtigruten’s number one priority.”

Now that’s in doubt, and Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that Hurtigruten management is investigating itself what happened during the period leading up to confirmation of the first Corona infection among crew members late last week.

“A preliminary evaluation shows that there have been weaknesses in several of our internal procedures,” Hurtigruten CEO Skjeldam admitted to NRK earlier on Monday. “This is a serious situation for everyone affected. We haven’t been good enough and we have made mistakes.

“On behalf of all of us working at Hurtigruten, I’m sorry for what has happened. We are taking full responsibility.”

Hurtigruten’s specially built ship MS Spitsbergen is often used for so-called “expedition” cruising along with the new hybrid ships, but its re-launced cruises are being suspended along with those on the MS Roald Amundsen and MS Fridtjof Nansen after a Corona virus outbreak on Roald Amundsen. PHOTO: Hurtigruten/Karsten Bidstrup

Skjeldam, who’s been an eager promoter of Hurtigruten’s cruises the past few years, didn’t go quite that far in a press release posted on the company’s English-language website. It announced suspension of all “expedition sailings” on the line’s new hybrid vessels MS Roald Amundsen, and MS Fridtjof Nansen and on MS Spitsbergen until further notice” and confirmed that 36 crew members and “several guests” had tested postive for Covid-19 in the outbreak on board the Roald Amundsen. Hurtigruten’s other liner routes and cruises along the Norwegian coast are not affected by the suspension.

Skjeldam then repeated the line’s health and safety claims himself, stating that Hurtigruten was “now focusing all available efforts (on) taking care of our guests and colleagues. We are working closely with the Norwegian national and local health authorities for follow-up, information, further testing and infection tracking.

“In light of the recent increase in new cases of Covid-19 globally, the only responsible choice is to suspend all expedition sailings until we are absolutely confident (that) we can carry out our operations in line with all requirements from the authorities and with the even stricter requirements we have set for ourselves,” Skjeldam claimed, adding that Hurtigruten would be contacting those booked on now-cancelled cruises.

Hurtigruten’s hard-pressed CEO Daniel Skjeldam, at a press conference late Monday afternoon. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

After being confronted with the statements from the doctors in Hadsel and an angry and disappointed Health Minister Bent Høie, who said he’d lost a lot of confidence in Hurtigruten, the CEO of the venerable shipping line that’s tied Norway together for more than 100 years clearly realized the time for excuses was over.

At a late afternoon press conference, Skjeldam “laid himself flat,” as the Norwegians say, and issued a full apology. “We have let everyone down, we’ve been wrong,” Skjeldam said, adding that he would cooperate with all authorities and do what he could to rebuild confidence in the company.

Advice not followed
It has already been reported that the cruise and shipping line did not follow Norway’s public health institute’s advice either, after being informed last Wednesday that one of its passengers on board the first of two Svalbard cruises had tested positive. The institute (FHI), in addition to the doctors in Hadsel, urged Hurtigruten to contact all passengers as quickly as possible, but that didn’t begin until two days later, after the Roald Amundsen had returned to Tromsø on Friday and all passengers had disembarked.

The two cruises had the same crew, and the first two cases of crew infection were confirmed on Friday. Now FHI is fearing a new Corona outbreak nationwide, since Hurtigruten’s passengers came from 69 municipalities around the country.

The number of Covid-19 patients in hospital, meanwhile, had risen from just three last week to 14 as of Monday afternoon, according to the health directorate. That’s the highest number since July 3, and one patient was on a respirator.

Both county authorities in Troms and Finnmark and the police are now investigating how Hurtigruten handled the Corona outbreak. Tromsø officials are also trying to track down everyone on board and who they may have been in contact with after leaving the ship.

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund