Norway’s maritime authority has issued a highly critical report of how shipping and cruise line Hurtigruten deviated from health and safety policy and regulations in the midst of the Corona crisis. It notes that Hurtigruten failed to announce or log both suspicion and subsequent confirmation of the Corona virus on board its MS Roald Amundsen last month, even though some crew members were ill more than a week before alarms were sounded on July 31.
“There’s a demand to document such things … you can’t choose not to report it,” Dag Inge Aarhus, communications director at the Norwegian Maritime Authority (Sjøfarts-direktoratet), told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) after releasing its report this week. “They have to do something about this.”
The authority quickly launched its own investigation of the Corona outbreak on board the Roald Amundsen last month that ended up infecting 29 passengers and 42 crew members on board. Most of the crew members are from the Philippines, and the authority reveals that some “were sick” and already lying in the ship’s own on-board hospital on July 21, during the first of two cruises between Tromsø in Northern Norway and the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. Their illnesses were not logged in the ship’s dekksdagbok (onboard diary), nor was any suspicion about Covid-19. “When the outbreak became a fact, it wasn’t logged either,” writes the maritime authority.
The role of the ship’s doctors has become critical, both in the outbreak on board the Roald Amundsen and in Corona infection on board its sistership MS Fritjof Amundsen, which also had passengers on board who were ill with Corona last spring before cruising was halted. At least one of the passengers later died. The maritime authority’s report states that ship’s doctors are obligated to inform the ship’s captain of all Covid-19 cases or suspicion of them on board. The captain in turn “shall inform the company” immediately. That line of communication “was not followed on board Roald Amundsen.”
Eager to resume cruising
Hurtigruten had been eager to resume cruising this summer after more than three months of having to berth its vessels during the Corona crisis. The company has heavy debt, needs a steady revenue stream and had demanded state financial support to help cover losses tied to Corona containment measures. It was thus important to get its new so-called “expedition” ships back into service.
Hurtigruten has consistently claimed that the safety of its passengers (called “guests”) is its highest priority, and many who have sailed both along the Norwegian coast and on the Svalbard cruises have confirmed strict Corona measures on board. Maritime authorities now claim, after Hurtigruten was accused of trying to cover up Corona infection on board the Roald Amundsen, that the company violated several portions of its own policy, not least its alleged commitment to openness. Norwegian police, meanwhile, are investigating whether Hurtigruten also violated Norway’s infection control laws.
The authority’s report futher states that it seemed to be unclear within Hurtigruten who was responsible for various procedures, who should report to whom, who should evaluate risk and even what the employment arrangements were for the ship’s doctors on board. “Some claim the doctor was employed by (Hurtigruten), others by the ship itself,” notes the report.
The report claims that risk evaluation was not carried out before cruises resumed in July. “Given the situation with an ongoing pandemic, reduced staffing within Hurtigruten’s administration (because of layoffs and summer holidays), the consequences that an infection outbreak would have, the need for major changes in routines, steadily new regulations, bringing in foreign seafarers and much more, a risk evaluation should have been made … before the resumption in July,” the maritime authority states.
The company’s “reporting culture … does not seem to have functioned,” the authority states. Some employees at Hurtigruten already had suspicion of Covid-19 on board two days before the ship arrived back in Tromsø. Management claimed they had not received “an official report” of the suspicion until it was confirmed on July 31. The maritime authority points out that regardless of any “formal or informal” lines of reporting, “central roles in (Hurtigruten’s) administration did not follow up the suspicion already on July 29.” That “raises questions,” stated the authority, “about the company’s safety culture” and how well safety policies are embedded in the company.
Disappointed state officials
The authority also claimed that “preparedness did not function as it should.” Alarms were raised too late, and even after infection was confirmed, Hurtigruten’s “preparedness organization” still wasn’t mobilized. State and local health authorities, after informing Hurtigruten on land about another Corona infection case no board, had expected Hurtigruten to immediately inform passengers on board the Roald Amundsen before it arrived back in Tromsø. That didn’t happen, prompting harsh criticism from Health Minister Bent Høie.
Maritime authorities are clearly disappointed in Hurtigruten as well. “We describe our findings as serious,” communications director Aarhus told NRK on Wednesday. “Hurtigruten is a large company and a professional organization. It thus surprises us that so many deviations have come up.”
After being criticized for violating its owns policy of openness, Hurtigruten has now published the authority’s report on its own website (external link in Norwegian). The company, which has publicly apologized over its handling of Corona on board its ships, has until September 21 to respond with a plan for “corrective measures,” and must respond to each allegation of deviations from policy by November 24.