Hurtigruten boss survives disgrace

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Quarantine rules weren’t followed, suspected cases of the Corona virus weren’t followed up and crew members felt their lives were in danger but were afraid to speak out. The board of Norway’s publicly disgraced Hurtigruten cruise and shipping line nonetheless claims it still has confidence in CEO Daniel Skjeldam, and that both he and the rest of his management team simply need to learn from all their potentially fatal mistakes.

Hands folded and reading slowly from a prepared script, Hurtigruten’s chief executive Daniel Skjeldam apologized for utterly failing to ward off or later control Corona virus infection on board two cruises from Tromsø in Northern Norway to Svalbard in July.PHOTO: Hurtigruten

Skjeldam thus seems to have survived what’s been described as one of the biggest scandals in Norwegian business history. A crushing internal report released Thursday on how Hurtigruten failed to ward off or control a Covid-19 outbreak on board its new ship MS Roald Amundsen points out plenty of mistakes, but none of them seems to have any consequences for the highly paid Skjeldam or others responsible.

“The outbreak on the MS Roald Amundsen can’t be blamed on any single incident or any one person’s actions,” concluded Jan Fougner, an attorney for Oslo law firm Wiersholm. The firm, along with classification and consulting firm DNV GL, led Hurtigruten’s own investigation of how 71 passengers and crew members ended up testing positive for Covid-19 after the Amundsen‘s two cruises to Svalbard in July.

Both Wiersholm and DNV GL have previously worked as paid consultants for Hurtigruten, raising questions about the impartiality of their report. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported earlier on Thursday that many crew members refused to talk to the investigators, fearing they were not sufficiently independent of Hurtigruten and could suffer reprisals.  Fougner, however, has been behind several other probes into scandals at Norwegian companies, not least Yara’s ill-fated venture into Libya, and is well-regarded in his field.

Skjeldam can probably thank this man, Oslo lawyer Jan Fougner, who led the Hurtigruten’s own investigation into the scandal that some Norwegian media have called “unforgiveable.” Fougner was reluctant to place specific blame for Hurtigruten’s Corona crisis, that also resulted Thursday in the cancellation of all expedition cruises until January at the earliest. PHOTO: Hurtigruten

He stressed at a press conference late Thursday afternoon that “many have made mistakes” and it wouldn’t help to simply blame or fire various individuals. That alone seems to have saved Skjeldam from being dismissed or opting to step down himself, as many expected he would. Skjeldam  claimed he and his harshly criticized management team are taking the report seriously, accepting responsibility and promising to do a better job in the future.

“No one is looking for scapegoats,” Skjeldam said at the press conference. He wouldn’t say, however, whether the man in charge of maritime operations at Hurtigruten would be returning from what’s been described as a “suspension of duties” after the fateful July cruises. Even after publicly promising openness and honesty, Skjeldam said that the future of the suspended executive, Bent Martini, “would be settled internally, not through the media.”

Thursday’s press conference was widely covered in Norway, with Norway’s TV2 commenting how Hurtigruten’s board had “almost touching praise” for Skjeldam in a situation where he could have been made to walk the plank. Board leader and longtime cruise investor Trygve Hegnar, known for also running media outlets that harshly criticize businesses when they make mistakes, insisted that Skjeldam was still “the right person” to restore Hurtigruten’s reputation and win back public confidence. Fellow Hurtigruten investor and board member Petter Stordalen said he was also convinced that Hurtigruten would weather the storm it’s in and “come back stronger.”

Trygve Hegnar, who leads Hurtigruten’s board, has made a career out of criticizing and ridiculing other business executive’s mistakes in the various media publications he owns. He nonetheless defended Hurtigruten’s CEO here at Thursday’s press conference, insisting Skjeldam was still the best person to restore public confidence in the historic shipping line that’s run into serious problems with its international cruising. PHOTO: Hurtigruten

Hurtigruten had announced earlier in the day that it would extend cancellation of all its international cruising to the Antarctic and Arctic through the rest of the year. New cruises won’t start up again until “January at the earliest,” Skjeldam said. He claimed he and his management team would instead spend time digesting all the criticism against them and “learning” from their mistakes. Medical personnel on board its ships would be strengthened, he said, quarantine rules updated and testing imposed on everyone coming on board when they start sailing again. He apologized for all the trouble Hurtigruten has caused, begging the pardon of the line’s passengers, employees, the city of Tromsø and health care officials who saw a need to take over control of the Corona situation on board the Roald Amundsen.

Thursday’s damning report only covered the two cruises on the Roald Amundsen in July, which Fougner seemed to view as isolated incidents even though Hurtigruten also had Corona infection on board the Amundsen’s sister ship, MS Fridtjof Nansen, as early as March and one of its passengers died a few weeks later. Many of the mistakes made on the Amundsen in July seemed to repeat those made months earlier on the Nansen, including poor information for passengers and failure to address or follow up on Corona-like symptoms.

Hotel tycoon Petter Stordalen, who also sits on Hurtigruten’s board, sat as defensively as Hegnar at the press conference, with arms folded tightly as they had to answer embarrassing questions from the Norwegian media. PHOTO: Hurtigruten

Fougner criticized Hurtigruten for being “too eager” to start cruising again when Norwegian authorities reopened for it during the summer. Hurtigruten assumed way too much risk during a pandemic, Fougner said, as he pointed to poor communication and, most of all, a poor “culture” within the company and on board.

The ship’s two doctors were also criticized, but it emerged that the doctor from the Philippines recommended that sick, isolated crew members be tested for Corona. The Norwegian doctor reportedly disagreed and testing was dropped. That turned out to be among the biggest mistake. The ship’s doctor on board the Nansen also failed to suggest testing or even mention the possibility of Corona infection, even though the virus was spreading quickly around Europe at the time.

The low-paid Filipino crews flown into Norway to work on Roald Amundsen did not undergo adequate testing themselves before boarding and reporting for duty. Quarantine rules on board were carried out not by an educated legal expert but by a man trains as a cook, and risk management appeared to be almost non-existent. Passengers were allowed to simply disembark upon arrival back in Tromsø, without being told of the infection on board.

Hurtigruten remains under investigation by Norwegian police and health authorities in Troms and Finnmark. The actions of the ship’s doctors are believed to be an important part of their probe. Crew members on board the Amundsen have claimed that Hurtigruten officials lied to them about the Corona outbreak and Norway’s seafarers’ union has complained. Ill crew members also allegedly served food to passengers in the Amundsen’s restaurant, without wearing any anti-infection gear.

Skjeldam said he was “glad” that Hurtigruten’s board still “has confidence in me,” even after he led the company into its worst public relations crisis ever. He claimed Hurtigruten now “must navigate out of the crisis” and acknowledged that he has “big and long” job ahead. Results of a police investigation are pending, however, and they may involve criminal charges of negligence and endangering the public. PHOTO: Hurtigruten

NRK reported Wednesday that Filipino crews have also complained that Hurtigruten’s management put their lives in danger, but they were afraid of losing their relatively low-paid jobs that help them support their families back home. Several have claimed they had to sign agreements not to talk to the media, even though Skjeldam has promised honesty and openness.

The crew members confirm that even though they arrived from a country that otherwise would require minimum 10 days of quarantine, they were ushered directly on board the Amundsen and put to work. They were aware that Hurtigruten was violating World Health Organization regulations, and as many as 16 crew members shared one large cabin in the crew quarters.

Crew were also told not to show themselves on the harbour side of the ship when it was docked in Tromsø, “because there were so many people from the press there.” No one was allowed to speak to journalists and crew was told not to post any information about the situation on board on social media. “They tried to cover it up,” one crew member told NRK.

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund