Hurtigruten a target of multiple probes

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Questions continue to swirl around Norway’s once-proud shipping and cruise line Hurtigruten, after an outbreak of the Corona virus on board its new hybrid exploration ship MS Roald Amundsen. Now even the ship’s two doctors are targets of a supervisory probe, while state police continue to investigate whether Hurtigruten violated state Corona containment regulations.

Hurtigruten’s new hybrid ship MS Roald Amundsen was cruising around Svalbard when Corona infection first broke out. The company is now the target of multiple investigations into allegations it withheld information and violated infection prevention regulations. PHOTO: Hurtigruten/Oscar Farrera

A total of 71 people are now confirmed as being infected with the Corona virus after the Roald Amundsen’s cruise from Tromsø to Svalbard and back in July. The vessel returned early in the morning of July 31 to Tromsø with two ill crew members on board and after Hurtigruten officials had been informed that a passenger on the vessel’s prior cruise also had become ill with Covid-19. All returning passengers on board the Roald Amundsen were nonetheless allowed to disembark in Tromsø, and thereby unwittingly risk spreading the virus further as they traveled home. No announcement of the Corona infection on board had been made to passengers or other crew members, angering and disappointing state health officials who’d been told Hurtigruten would inform all on board.

Alarms finally rang before many of the passengers were set to board flights at Tromsø’s airport and several were held in quarantine. Others had already traveled on by other means, however, allowing Corona infection to thus spread around the country.

“This is an extremely serious situation, because we’re talking about Covid-19 patients,” said Dr. Anne Grethe Olsen, chief medical officer for the northern county of Troms og Finnmark where Tromsø is located. “It can be a serious illness with serious consequences.”

‘Reason to move forward’ with punitive probes
As of this week, 11 people remained in isolation on board the vessel because of illness. All other crew members have been released from quarantine, reports state broadcaster NRK, but two of eight new cases of Covid-19 in Tromsø this week have been traced to passengers on board the Roald Amundsen. When the 11 ill crew members recover or can be moved to ashore, the vessel must then be fully cleaned and sanitized, according to Dr Trond Brattland, top infection control officer in Tromsø. Then Hurtigruten “can do what it wants with the ship,” Brattland told NRK.

Olsen’s office, meanwhile, announced Thursday that it is opening a tilsynssak (supervisory case) in order to assess how such an uncontrolled outbreak of the Corona virus could occur. She confirmed to state broadcaster NRK that the case targets the two doctors on board the Roald Amundsen, to determine whether they acted in accordance with their medical and legal obligations.

“Based on the information we’ve collected so far, we have found reason to move forward with a supervisory investigation of the two ship’s doctors who were on board,” Olsen told NRK. “We’ll be looking at the demands made of health care personnel and whether they were followed.”

Doctors without authorization
One of the doctors is Norwegian and the other from the Philippines, mainly because of all the Filipino crew on board the vessel. Questions have also arisen around deficient testing of Filipino crew members, while neither the Filipino doctor nor two nurses from the Philippines had Norwegian authorization to work on board. While the state health directorate has claimed that violates Norwegian law, the state maritime directorate believes it’s allowed under international shipping regulations.

Dr Kathrine Kristoffersen, chief medical officer for the municipality of Tromsø, told NRK last week that she was surprised when she’d asked the ship’s captain whether everyone on board the Roald Amundsen had Norwegian authorization and he said no. “I think that’s indefensible,” Kristoffersen told NRK. “There’s a reason that authorization is demanded, that you have the necessary education and can document it.”

That prompted her local medical staff to immediately take over responsibility for medical operations on board. She also said that cooperation with the Norwegian doctor on board the Roald Amundsen has been “difficult” and that his own authorization has been suspended on earlier occasions. It was restored in 2007.

Øystein Knoph, a spokesman for Hurtigruten, said that its ships sailing along the Norwegian coast have no medical personnel on board because they stop at more than two dozen ports along their route where medical care is available. The company’s four so-called “expedition” ships (the Roald Amundsen, Fram, Fridtjof Nansen and Spitsbergen) sail on international routes and have both Norwegian and international crew and passengers on board. “The Norwegian medical staff has Norwegian authorization and the international staff has authorization from their countries,” Knoph told NRK.

Allegations of a cover-up
Knoph, like most other Hurtigruten officials, won’t comment on what happened on board the Roald Amundsen pending results of the various investigations underway. In addition to probes into health care procedures on board, Norwegian police have also questioned around 20 people involved in what’s been branded as an “unforgiveable scandal” at Hurtigruten. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported Thursday that police are also going through electronic communication during the fateful cruise.

The police will send their findings to state prosecutors, who suspect that Hurtigruten officials violated infection control measures and may have endangered the public health. Allegations have flown that Hurtigruten officials both on board and ashore tried to cover up Corona infection on board. State health officials have been furious that staff on board failed to inform passengers about the infection, for example, while there was a major disagreement over infection risk between the doctor on board and doctors in the Norwegian community where a previous passenger had fallen ill.

Eventual charges carry punishment of up to three years in prison. Police are working to determine how much information Hurtigruten officials actually had, and whether they had reason to prevent more infection when the vessel arrived in Tromsø and they failed to do so.

Internal investigation, too
Hurtigruten itself has hired Oslo law firm Wiersholm and DNV GL to undertake an internal investigation of the outbreak on board the Roald Amundsen. After massive criticism over Hurtigruten’s decision to muzzle crew members and withhold information in the case, the company’s hard-pressed board leader has promised that results of its own investigation will be made public. “After all that’s happened, it’s important that nothing is withheld, in order to win back public confidence,” Trygve Hegnar, Hurtigruten’s chairman of the board, told newspaper Klassekampen on Monday.

The company had been under fire since its chief executive, Daniel Skjeldam, initially promised “limitless honesty” and openness but then clammed up and muzzled all staff. Skjeldam admitted to making mistakes in his only press conference on the scandal, only to later refuse to answer questions until all investigations are completed.

Skjeldam wouldn’t even promise that the company’s internal investigation would be released, but Hegnar, who initially expressed confidence in Skjeldam, later seemed to overrule that. “Hurtigruten will not hold back information in this case to protect itself or its employees,” he stated. “In my world, that’s not what you do.”

Hegnar has also told DN that the Wiersholm and DNV GL teams of investigators will have “free hands” and will work independently. Results of their investigation “should give us a good foundation to understand what happened and let us learn from it,” Hegnar said.

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund