‘Guest’ died after Hurtigruten cruise

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Albert and Gaby Facq were among at least four passengers who fell seriously ill with the Corona virus after more than a week of cruising off Britain in March, on Norwegian shipping line Hurtigruten’s new expedition ship MS Fridtjof Nansen. The ship’s doctor did not diagnose Albert’s symptoms as Corona-related, however, and Hurtigruten continued to claim as late as mid-July that it had not had “any confirmed or suspected cases” of the Corona virus “on any of our ships.”

Gaby and Albert Facq were among Hurtigruten’s 388 guests on board the brand new MS Fridtjof Nansen as it cruised off the British Isles in March. Albert fell seriously ill while on board, tested positive for Covid-19 upon arrival back home in Belgium and died on April 15. Gaby spent nearly two weeks in the hospital, but survived. PHOTO: Privat

The Facqs’ Corona ordeal, along with that of two friends from the Netherlands traveling with them, suggests otherwise. Albert Facq was attended to by the ship’s doctor on board the Fridtjof Nansen early in the morning of March 17. As the Corona crisis was sweeping over Europe at the time, the doctor instead diagnosed the feverish Facq with “Acute Febrile Illness/Gastritis,” and released him to travel home to Belgium with no precautions when the cruise ended in Portsmouth later that day. Once home again in Belgium, Facq was quickly tested and hospitalized with Covid-19, as was his wife Gaby. He died on April 15.

The Facqs’ friends and travel partners, Lilian and Johan Harteveld, also tested positive and got sick shortly after the cruise. So did the Facq’s son Joeri, who was not on the cruise but believes he was infected when meeting his parents after they’d returned home. Johan Harteveld spent 11 weeks in the hospital, and wasn’t allowed to return home until June 19. They have all shared their story with newsinenglish.no, after reading about the recent Corona outbreak aboard the MS Roald Amundsen in Norway. They have also shared their frustration with Hurtigruten over the past several months.

‘Complete disaster’
“Your administration, your communication and your helpfulness towards your customers is a complete disaster,” wrote Joeri Facq in an email on July 21 to Hurtigruten’s customer service center in London, where passenger queries had been directed after the British Isles cruise. Lilian Harteveld had initially contacted Hurtigruten’s sales representative in the Netherlands (norske.nl) in late April and claims officials there were “shocked” to hear of their Corona ordeal, but all feedback was referred to customer service at Hurtigruten Limited in London.

The doctor on board the Fridtjof Nansen, shown here off southern England during the March cruise, diagnosed passenger Albert Facq with “Acute Febrile Illness/Gastritis” and let him and his traveling companions leave the ship the same day. Facq died from Covid-19 four weeks later. PHOTO: Private

With her husband in the hospital and mourning the death of their friend Albert, Harteveld didn’t call Hurtigruten Limited in London until early June. She says she again mentioned their Corona ordeal and received a sympathetic response from the woman on the phone, but then all correspondence was turned over to a “Guest Relations Specialist” to handle  the Hartevelds’ claims for refunds because of cancelled excursions and port calls during their cruise, which Hurtigruten blamed mostly on poor weather conditions.

Reimbursement finally came more than four months after the cruise ended, and after Lilian Harteveld wrote about their Corona ordeal in an email on July 18. When Joeri Facq didn’t hear back from customer service, he forwarded his mail to Hurtigruten CEO Daniel Skjeldam. He still hasn’t heard from Skjeldam, even though Facq wrote in his mails that his father had died of Covid-19 shortly after the cruise on the Fridtjof Nansen.

Facq sent some heated reaction to what he views as a company that, in the end, did not or could not protect its passengers from the Corona virus and has since tried to avoid responsibility. He wrote to both the cruise line’s customer service in London and to Skjeldam’s own gmail account, claiming that “you seem to have done and do everything possible to escape from that responsibility.”

That was written and sent to Hurtigruten Limited in London 10 days before the Fridtjof Nansen‘s sistership MS Roald Amundsen arrived in Tromsø early in the morning of Friday July 31 with two sick crew members on board and information that a passenger on an earlier cruise had tested positive to the Corona virus. Hurtigruten failed to pass that information on to all the other passengers, allowing them to leave the ship as well with no precautions. A total of 71 people on board the vessel later tested positive for Covid-19. The recent outbreak on the Roald Amundsen is currently the target of multiple investigations in Norway amidst allegations that both doctors on board the vessel and Hurtigruten officials tried to cover it up.

The Hartevelds and the Facq have been on many cruises in the past, shown here on a ship off Japan last year. From left: Johan Harteveld, Gaby Facq, Joeri Facq, Lilian Harteveld and the late Albert Facq. PHOTO: Private

“We were really shocked about what happened on their ship now,” Lilian Harteveld, who’s been on several cruises with her husband and the Facqs, told newsin-english.no after reading about the outbreak on the Roald Amundsen. “How stupid can you be? Compared to other (cruise) companies, Hurtigruten is not well-organized.” She also sent an Instagram message to Skjeldam in July, writing that “our friend became ill on the (Fridtjof Nansen) … the doctor on the ship was with our friend (who) died later,” but Harteveld said she “got no answer” from Skjeldam.

Hurtigruten officials in Oslo have responded by noting that Hurtigruten’s “customer care representatives” were not informed about their former passengers’ Corona ordeal until “several months after the voyage. The information was given in relation to a request for refunds by the guests themselves, which has since been handled.”

Tarjei Kramviken, communications adviser for Hurtigruten in Oslo, acknowledged that its passenger (Facq) “was diagnosed with a different illness than Covid-19.” He added in an email to newsinenglish.no that “it’s impossible for us to rate a medical assessment from the middle of March now, and it’s generally important to remember the completely different situation, test regime and knowledge at the time.” The role of the ship’s doctors on the Roald Amundsen, meanwhile, has become a critical portion of the police investigation in Norway. Now the role of the Fridtjof Nansen‘s doctor is also a target of criticism.

Another view of Hurtigruten’s brand new expedition ship MS Fridjtof Nansen in March, taken by the Hartevelds off the southern coast of England near Fowey. PHOTO: Private

Hurtigruten, which consistently refers to its passengers as “guests,” has repeatedly pointed to stringent infection prevention measures on board all its ships. Kramviken did so again on Wednesday: “As all cruise lines, we have had procedures in place for infectious diseases for many years (that) have been continuously updated, including in response to the global Corona virus pandemic.”

Both the Hartevelds and the Facqs confirm Hurtigruten’s strict embarkation policy that followed the guidelines and recommendations of the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) and other ship operators. Both couples met all requirements and contend they were in good health when they boarded the Fridtjof Nansen in London (Tilbury) on March 7.

Even if they unknowingly had contracted the virus before boarding, Albert Facq was clearly ill with it while on the ship, but both the Facqs and the Hartevelds feel they had trouble getting Hurtigruten to acknowledge that. Kramviken wrote to newinenglish.no on Wednesday that management in Oslo has now “been informed that tragically one of the guests died in April. We have offered our deepest condolences to the family.”

‘Showcase Voyages’
The two couples had booked two five-day back-to-back cruises promoted as “Showcase Voyage 1” (London/Tilbury to Liverpool) from March 7-12, and “Showcase Voyage 2” (Liverpool to Portsmouth) from March 12-17. The four friends had actually planned to cruise together off China and Japan at the time, but ironically enough, “that cruise was cancelled because of Corona,” Harteveld wrote in an email to newsinenglish.no, “so we found the cruise from March 7-17. We were promised there were strict Corona measures. Was that true? Our cabin steward had a bad cold and was wearing a face mask. Was he tested for Corona?”

Hurtigruten has not responded to questions about whether the Frithjof Nansen’s crew members had been tested before reporting for duty on board.

Here’s how the two cruises on board the new MS Fridtjof Nansen were advertised. There were two more scheduled afterwards, but they were both cancelled. FACSIMILE: Hurtigruten

Harteveld remembers that their friend Albert Facq “lost his appetite on March 14” and had “problems with his stomach.” His condition worsened and on the night of March 16-17, the ship’s doctor was summoned with a nurse. A copy of his EUR 111.35 bill for medical services on board shows his diagnosis as “Acute Febrile Illness/Gastritis,” and both the Hartevelds and Facq’s widow Gaby say there was no mention of possible Corona infection even though a key symptom is acute onset of a high fever. “He was given some medicine (Paracet, Voltaren and Metoclopramide, according to his “Medical Service Bill”) so it was possible to leave the ship,” Harteveld said.

In Norway, meanwhile, where Hurtigruten’s management and board remain based despite being taken over in 2014 by a large investment fund in London, government officials had shut down the country and closed borders on March 12. The Liverpool-Portsmouth cruise departed as scheduled on March 12, but a sidetrip to Dublin was cancelled as were several port calls. The buffet in the ship’s restaurant was closed and all chairs set a distance from one another in the meeting room aboard the ship, “which was not the case at the start of the cruise,” according to Joeri Facq. “When my parents asked for the reason, they were told it was ‘orders from Norway.'”

The Facqs and Hartevelds traveled home together after the cruise by taking a taxi from the harbour at Portsmouth to London, and then the Eurostar train to Brussels. From there the Facqs took a local train to their home in Lokeren, Belgium, while the Hartevelds took a train to Rotterdam and then a taxi to their home in Zoetermeer, The Netherlands. They now realize they could well have unwittingly infected others along the way, and wonder now why the Fridtjof Nansen’s doctor didn’t mention or seem to consider that potential risk. It remains unclear whether the doctor himself was ever tested after attending to Facq on March 17.

Ill on arrival
Albert Facq was already seriously ill upon arrival home and all three others got sick shortly thereafter. All tested positive to Covid-19. Harteveld, age 61, claims she was “lucky” with mild symptoms, but her husband Johan, 66, was admitted to hospital on March 26 and wasn’t released until June 19. Many of his 11 weeks in the hospital were spent in the intensive care unit at LangeLand Ziekenhuis in Zoetermeer, which has written about his ordeal and treatment in a hospital publication. His wife Lilian wasn’t allowed to visit him until May. He continues to suffer various after-effects from his ordeal.

Gaby Facq, age 73, was also hospitalized for 12 days but did not require intensive care, according to her son Joeri, 44. “She got extra oxygen and a lot of antibiotics,” Joeri wrote in an email to newsinenglish.no. “Although she’s been declared ‘healthy’ by the doctors, she also still suffers from consequences of the Corona virus, such as no taste and smell, very exhausted and difficulties sleeping.”

‘Very angry’
Her husband and Joeri Facq’s father, the 76-year-old Albert Facq, died after more than three weeks in intensive care. “My mother is very angry with Hurtigruten, because she is sure that there were Corona-related problems on board,” Joeri Facq writes. He notes how officials have denied having any knowledge of infection on board, also in connection with what’s now called the “scandal” on board  the Roald Amundsen, “but they did not test any (passenger), so how could they know that no one was infected?” His parents definitely were.

While Hurtigruten claims it’s “impossible” to rate a medical assessment from mid-March, Facq wrote that “we suspect the doctor who visited my father had an idea that he was infected with Corona, but kept silent about it because he just wanted to get him ashore, to not have problems.” That’s also been an allegation in the case involving the two doctors on board the Roald Amundsen. Hurtigruten has refused, in that case, to respond to questions about “specific individuals, specific incidents or medical evaluations made” pending a police investigation into whether Hurtigruten violated Norwegian anti-infection laws.

Johan Harteveld survived Covid-19 after 11 weeks in the hospital at home in the Netherlands. His wife Lilian initiated the correspondence with Hurtigruten over delayed refunds for cancelled port calls and shore excursions, but also wrote about their Corona ordeal in July. PHOTO: LangeLand Ziekenhuis

Lilian Harteveld, meanwhile, resumed what already had become what she considered frustrating correspondence with Hurtigruten after her husband recovered and came home from the hospital in June. Refunds have now finally been paid out, after several attempts to get both the Facqs and Hartevelds to accept vouchers for discounts on a future cruise, instead of actual reimbursement. That was of no interest to either couple.

A customer service representative at Hurtigruten Ltd in London has since apologized for “changes” made during the cruise, written to Lilian Harteveld that she was “sorry to learn of your friend passing away and your husband being unwell” after Harteveld referred to their personal tragedy in a mail, and claimed “our thoughts are with you at this difficult time.”

Hurtigruten’s representative, however, went on to write to Harteveld that “we have not had any reported cases of Covid on any of our ships, but please rest assured we will certainly take this matter seriously and we will revert to you as soon as possible.” That was on July 21. Hurtigruten officials in Oslo have not responded to questions as to whether Hurtigruten’s “Guest Relations Specialist” alerted her own managers or top management of Hurtigruten in Oslo to the written report of Corona illness on board the Fridtjof Nansen.

Two days later, on July 23, the representative wrote back to Harteveld to report relaying “our sincere condolences to Mr Facq and to his mother.” She also wrote that she had “made contact with our fleet sanitation officer and we can confirm that we have not had any confirmed or suspected cases of Covid-19 on any of our ships,” the representative wrote. “In addition we would like to assure you that all necessary precautions were taken prior to the sailing and during the sailing to ensure the safety and well-being of our guests and crew.” Harteveld was stunned, since those “precautions” clearly did not ensure their own well-being, and the doctor didn’t warn them of possible Corona infection tied to her friend’s illness.

Cruising resumed as soon as border restrictions eased
By that time, in July, Hurtigruten had resumed cruises after a three-month suspension forced by Corona restrictions all over Europe. While the ill-fated Roald Amundsen was cruising between Tromsø and Svalbard, the Fridtjof Nansen was deployed on three 14-day cruises between Hamburg and the North Cape. Those cruises, which attracted mostly German passengers (only 61, though, plus one French “guest” on the cruise that left Hamburg on July 10), were also suspended after the Corona outbreak on the Roald Amundsen and the third one returned to Hamburg on August 7. Corona test results of guests and crew tested for Corona on the last cruise were all negative.

According to Hurtigruten’s own online “Logbook” for passengers, there were a total of 388 “guests” on board the Fridtjof Nansen when it left London on March 7, 340 of them British. The others included 21 Norwegians, seven Dutch including the Hartevelds, the Facqs from Belgium and the rest from Australia, Canada, Estonia, Germany, Israel, Italy, Denmark, South Africa and Switzerland. All could presumably have been exposed to the Corona virus since the Hartevelds and Facqs later tested positive. So could the vessel’s more than 100 crew members. Local port authorities on the Isle of Portland, its first stop after leaving London March 7, reported a total of 530 people on board.

Hurtigruten has not offered a “Logbook” recap of the second “Showcase voyage” that left Liverpool on March 12. The Hartevelds and Facqs kept their same cabins when they stayed on board for the second cruise but otherwise Lilian Harteveld notes there was a change of passengers and she thinks most of them were from Great Britain.

Fleet laid up
Hurtigruten confirmed that after the cruise ended on March 17, “all our expedition ships and almost our entire fleet was laid up in response to the global situation shortly after this voyage.” The Frithjof Nansen currently remains berthed in Bergen, while the Roald Amundsen was cleared to leave Tromsø on Monday after all 42 crew members who had tested positive or were ill with Covid-19 have recovered. Norway continues to severely restrict cruising for the third week in a row, leaving plans for Hurtigruten’s new expedition ships still “under discussion.”

The company, which has heavy debt, is clearly eager to restore revenue stream and still hasn’t cancelled expensive cruises on its expedition vessels around South America and to Antarctica that are scheduled to begin later this autumn. Many passengers who’ve already paid large deposits and face bills for the remainder have complained on a Hurtigruten Facebook page about poor information from the company, and wonder whether they’ll get their money back even if the cruises are cancelled. Like the airlines, Hurtigruten has shown itself slow to offer refunds after cancellations, and far prefers offering vouchers for future cruises to preserve its cash.

Hurtigruten officials including CEO Skjeldam have admitted to making mistakes in how they handled the outbreak on the Roald Amundsen, but currently remain mostly mum while the investigations are underway, including an internal probe. Hurtigruten’s spokesman Kramviken wrote in an email to newsinenglish.no on Wednesday that “we can always handle information better, and will look at what can be done with cases reported after the voyage.”

Lilian Harteveld doesn’t think Hurtigruten “was professional enough.” She recalls that the Norwegian captain on board the ship told them during their fateful cruise that “I am not responsible for everything.”

“How can you say that,” Harteveld wonders. “I hope our story can help prevent companies from starting their cruises too early again. We think we need vaccines before it’s safe enough to cruise.”

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund