Hurtigruten, the Norwegian coastal voyage line that’s expanded internationally, confirmed on Monday that three passengers on board its expedition ship Roald Amundsen had tested positive for the Corona virus. The ship, which also had a major and controversial outbreak of the virus during a Svalbard cruise in August 2020, is currently sailing in the Antarctic.
Swedish newspaper Expressen reported the outbreak on Sunday, after speaking with Swedish passenger Fabian Norlin. He said the ship’s captain suddenly issued what was called “an important message” over the ship’s loudspeaker system during dinner.
“This was unexpected,” Norlin told Expressen, since passengers had to produce a negative PCR test result before embarkation, undergo health and temperature screening, produce a negative rapid (antigen) test upon embarkation and, Norlin said, submit to random testing on board.
“You’d think that with so many tests, we should have been quite safe,” Norlin said, “so this is surprising.”
Four other passengers and four crew members were also in isolation, reported Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Monday, because they’re considered close contacts of those testing positive. None had any symptoms but all 11 were put into isolation in their cabins on the ship.
A Hurtigruten spokesman called the company’s testing regime “strict,” adding that several other measures had been imposed to protect the crew and passengers on the expedition cruises that depart from Chile. He tried to downplay the infection on board, saying those infected represented “an extremely limited number” of everyone on board (around 300, reported NRK).
“We’re glad that we can reveal this (the infection itself) and put measures in place through routine testing,” Øystein Knoph of Hurtigruten told NRK. He added that all the other passengers and crew on board had tested negative. No mention of the infection could be found, however, on Hurtigruten’s websites, not even under its section entitled “Covid-19: Updated information.”
Hurtigruten got into trouble over cruises on the Amundsen and its sister vessel Frithjof Nansen in 2020, after infection broke out on board both vessels and didn’t seem to be taken seriously. One man died after a cruise on the Nansen around the British Isles and several others fell seriously ill, while more than 70 people were infected during a cruise from Tromsø to Svalbard and back on the Amundsen.
Hurtigruten was later sharply criticized over how it handled the outbreaks, for putting crew flown in from the Philippines to work on the Amundsen without testing them after they’d arrived in Norway, and then the cruise line allowed all passengers to leave the ship after it returned from Svalbard to Tromsø. That exposed 69 municipalities around Norway to Corona infection at a time when no vaccine was yet available.
Police in Tromsø have just concluded a lengthy investigation into the outbreak on board the Amundsen and were due to send it to state prosecutors, who will determine whether charges will be filed against Hurtigruten. All cruises were halted shortly after the Amundsen outbreak, including the expedition cruises abroad that just started up again last September. Several of those were cancelled, too, but the Amundsen and MS Fram have been sailing from Punta Arenas in Chile to the Antarctic and back. The Nansen was re-routed for sailing between Hamburg and Norway.
Embattled Hurtigruten CEO Daniel Skjeldam, who so far has survived the scandals, had called the return to Antarctica “a remarkable turning point” for the company after all the Corona disruption. The Amundsen’s first cruise left on November 25 and the current cruise now marred by infection, left Punta Arenas on December 27 and was due to continue as planned. Hurtigruten has health personnel on board.
Infection has also broken out on other cruise ships recently, including another line’s vessel from Punta Arenas to Antarctica. Chilean newspaper La Prensa Austral reported that one ill 82-year-old passenger and her family were flown from the South Shetland Islands back to Punta Arenas, where the woman died.
NRK reported on New Year’s Eve that the P&O cruise ship Ventura also had Corona infection on board when it arrived in Stavanger that morning, with around 1,600 passengers. Harbour officials were informed that around eight crew members and one passenger had tested positive, despite being fully vaccinated. All were put into isolation while close contacts were put in quarantine.
Other passengers were allowed to go ashore, in line with international regulations, but local health authorities were not pleased. “I don’t think this is right, given the infection situation we have now,” Runar Johannessen of the health authority in Stavanger told NRK. Stavanger’s preparedness chief, Torstein Nilsen agreed: “This is not unproblematic, even though they claim to have good infection prevention rules on board.”
Health authorities in the US have advised against cruising, also for those fully vaccinated, because of the risk of infection spreading on board.