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Saturday, June 15, 2024

Hurtigruten fined in Covid cover-up

Norway’s coastal cruise and shipping line Hurtigruten, one of its captains and a ship’s doctor have been slapped with fines for violating Corona virus infection control regulations. The fines come 18 months after Hurtigruten allowed one of its vessels to sail between Tromsø and Svalbard with what proved to be Covid-19 infection on board and then let all passengers disembark.

Hurtigruten’s new hybrid ship MS Roald Amundsen was cruising around Svalbard in the summer of 2020 when Corona infection first broke out. The company became the target of multiple investigations into allegations it withheld information and violated infection prevention regulations. Now the company and some officers on board have been fined. PHOTO: Hurtigruten/Oscar Farrera

More than 70 people including Hurtigruten crew members and passengers were infected during the major Covid-19 outbreak on board one of Hurtigruten’s then-new “expedition” vessels Roald Amundsen. The company had flown in crew members from the Philippines and put them to work on the ship without adequate testing upon arrival. Then, after infection broke out on board, neither  officers on the Roald Amundsen nor Hurtigruten’s senior management on shore alerted either passengers or Norwegian authorities. Passengers instead were allowed to simply disembark in Tromsø after cruising around Svalbard, and travel on to their final destinations.

That in turn ended up exposing 69 municipalities all over Norway to Corona infection, as Norwegian passengers unwittingly took the virus home with them. Health authorities in Tromsø were hit hardest, and the vessel had to tie up there after two cruises with sick crew members on board, several of whom needed hospital care. It didn’t take long before Hurtigruten and its management were accused of a cover-up, and all cruises were suspended. Government officials were also upset, since Hurtigruten had received state compensation during the Corona crisis.

Nor was it the first time passengers themselves had complained to Hurtigruten of Covid-19 infection on one of its ships. A cruise around the British Isles on board Hurtigruten’s Fridtjof Nansen earlier that spring, shortly after the Corona crisis began, ended abruptly and very badly for at least two couples on board. They were from the Netherlands and Belgium and ended up becoming severely ill, one of them while still on board. He died just a month later, but subsequent appeals to Hurtigruten to acknowledge the Covid-19 infection on board were largely ignored.

‘Considerable’ violations
There have been multiple probes of the Hurtigruten scandal, with the police probe completed in December taking the longest. State prosecutors announced in a press release on Friday that Hurtigruten’s violations of anti-infection rules on the Svalbard cruises were evaluated as “considerable,” in regards to the numbers of passengers and crew members both infected and put at risk, the serious nature of the virus itself and the dangers related to how contagious it is.  The prosecutors thus “believe it is correct to fine Hurtigruten for this,” and that a fine of NOK 1 million (USD 111,000 at current exchange rates) was in line with the severity of the offense.

In addition to the fine against the company itself, the captain on board the Roald Amundsen during the cruise to Svalbard was fined NOK 30,000 for failing to inform Norwegian authorities of possible Corona infection on board the vessel. The ship’s Norwegian doctor was fined NOK 40,000 for the equivalent of negligence in connection with both his duties as a health care professional and failure to alert Norwegian authorities.

Hands folded and reading slowly from a prepared script, Hurtigruten’s chief executive Daniel Skjeldam publicly apologized in the fall of 2020 for failing to ward off or later control Corona virus infection on board two cruises from Tromsø in Northern Norway to Svalbard. Since then, Hurtigruten has struggled to return to business as normal as the Corona crisis continued. PHOTO: Hurtigruten

Charges brought against others within Hurtigruten, including another ship’s doctor from the Philippines, were dropped. According to an earlier report on the scandal, the Filipino doctor had recommended that sick, isolated crew members be tested for Corona. The Norwegian doctor reportedly disagreed and testing was dropped.

Police in Tromsø spent more than year investigating what some called an “unforgiveable” scandal involving the venerable shipping line that has plied Norway’s coast for more than a century. The company has been through ownership and management changes, lost its monopoly on the coastal cruises between Bergen and Kirkenes and has since launched ambitious expansion into so-called “expedition” cruising far beyond Norwegian waters.

Local prosecutor Lisa-Mari Ellingsen in Tromsø told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) attributed the lengthy investigation to “new problems and issues” tied to the pandemic. She said the police also needed help from both the Norwegian maritime directorate (Sjøfartsdirektoratet) and state health regulators at Statens helsetilsyn. Both maritime security and infection law were involved along with questioning of around 30 Hurtigruten employees, passengers and others, including seizure of emails and other records from Hurtigruten itself.

Documentation also needed to be gathered from public health institute FHI, the University Hospital for Northern Norway in Tromsø, the Norwegian National Coastal Administration (Kystverket) and various municipal health officials around Norway. They included the chief medical officer in the municipality of Hadsel who had alerted Hurtigruten officials after a local resident’s Covid infection was tied to one of the Svalbard cruises. NRK and other media have since reported that FHI advised Hurtigruten to warn passengers and test crew members, but the cruise line failed to do so.

‘Should have’ done better
“If the company had had the safety managment system they’re required to have in place, the sum of the information it had should have led to infection prevention measures, alerts and better follow-up to reduce the risk for further spreading,” Ellingsen told NRK on Friday.

Even though a million-kroner fine can seem mild compared to much-larger fines issued against companies for other violations of rules or laws, Hurtigruten officials weren’t immediately accepting it on Friday. Lawyer Berit Reiss-Andersen, who represents the Hurtigruten subsidiary running the cruises, instead told NRK that the case was “complicated” and “raises a series of legal challenges.” The companty would therefore “spend the weekend and the next few days to go through the details” of the fines issued “and what they mean for the company. We’ll come back with further comment when we and the board of Hurtigruten Coastal AS have come to a conclusion.”

The ship’s Norwegian doctor, meanwhile, has denied guilt and liability, according to his lawyer from the Norwegian medical association Legeforeningen. Hurtigruten’s chief executive officer, Daniel Skjeldam, has earlier apologized for all the trouble caused by the infection on board the Roald Amundsen and has seemed to survive the scandal, at least so far. Hurtigruten continues to operate cruises and has been plagued by infection on board other vessels including the Maud after four passengers tested positive on arrival in Tromsø earlier this month and back on the Roald Amundsen during a cruise in Antarctica. Berglund



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