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Monday, May 9, 2022

Covid strikes again on Hurtigruten ship

Norway’s Hurtigruten shipping line has suffered what may be its largest Corona virus outbreak ever, on board its so-called “expedition” ship MS Roald Amundsen. It’s the latest in a string of outbreaks on Hurtigruten vessels, also the Amundsen, even though management has claimed they intended to learn from past mistakes.

Hurtigruten’s cruiseship MS Roald Amundsen has had Covid outbreaks before, now again on a cruise to Antarctica. PHOTO: Hurtigruten

At least 30 cases of the Corona virus ended up spoiling a cruise from Chile to Antarctica that began on March 2.

“We were all routinely tested on March 5, when the outbreak was first detected,” wrote one passenger to newsinenglish.no. He added in his email that all public facilities on the ship were then closed except for the restaurants. Passengers testing negative were tested again three days later, leading to more positive results, also in a third testing round after that.

He described the outbreak as “massive,” reporting that an estimated 35-50 of the roughly 265 passengers on board had tested positive and were confined to their cabins. Another passenger wrote on social media that officers on board weren’t sharing case counts, “but I think there are 30+ cases and rising.” Events on board were reportedly cancelled, access to public areas was restricted, a scheduled visit to the Falkland Islands was dropped and the vessel returned to port in Punta Arenas two days early, on Tuesday (March 15).

“My cruise was ruined … I only saw Antarctica through the window of my ‘red zone’ cabin,” one of the passengers, who asked that his identity be withheld, wrote in an email to newsinenglish.no.no while still on board the Roald Amundsen earlier this week. He said the original “red zone” of cabins set aside for infected passengers “had to be expanded” and that officers on board refused to tell passengers how many crew members may have been infected as well, citing “confidentiality.”

Similar reports have been circulating since last weekend on social media, with one woman calling the situation “heartbreaking” and another complaining that passengers weren’t told what would happen when the first positive test results emerged. “They say they don’t know yet what they are going to do,” she wrote last weekend. “They should know because in January the Roald Amundsen already returned early to Punta Arenas with 10 Covid patients on board.” The cruise line later claimed the number was three.

The passenger contacting newsinenglish.no.no also complained that Hurtigruten officials on board initially refused “to provide any details about the situation,” also citing “confidentiality.” He was also aware that there had been an outbreak on board the ship in January: “I’m still puzzled why they are trying so hard to keep this information ‘confidential.’ There is absolutely no reason to hide these numbers, unless of course the company is trying to avoid another scandal. Hurtigruten has a lot to learn when it comes to customer relations.”

Hurtigruten CEO Daniel Skjeldam, shown here apologizing for how the company handled its first major outbreak on board the Roald Amundsen in the summer of 2020, has so far survived what even Norwegian politicians called the “scandal” at Hurtigruten. Now another outbreak has occurred. PHOTO: Hurtigruten

It’s the latest outbreak on the Roald Amundsen, the first of which (on ill-fated cruises to Svalbard in the summer of 2020) resulted in Hurtigruten agreeing early last month to pay a fine of NOK 1 million. Hurtiguten CEO Daniel Skjeldam said at the time that the company had been “turning every stone to find out what went wrong and how we can learn from it.” He blamed the outbreak that infected 29 passengers and 42 crew members in 2020 on “many individual mistakes,” and claimed both the company and he personally were taking full responsibility for what happened.

He further claimed, however, that the company “got a grip” on what needed to be improved, “from the small routines to the bigger,” and that the company had made many “major changes” during the past year-and-a-half. “The most important structural changes,” he claimed, were to split the Norwegian coastal cruise operations and the “expedition” cruises into two separate entities: Hurtigruten Norge and Hurtigruten Expeditions. The reorganization “improves the decisions and chain of command within the Hurtigruten Group,” Skjeldam claimed.

Disappointed and frustrated passengers who paid the equivalent of thousands of US dollars for this month’s spoiled cruise may disagree. “They are trying hard to sell themselves as a company where safety is the highest priority,” fumed one passenger, “but the reality is the opposite, they only care about their customers’ wallets. And it’s shameful how they try to control the information.”

He also suspects the infection began while Hurtigruten passengers (who’d had to test negative before even boarding flights and the ship) were being transferred from Santiago to Punta Arenas. “We had to wait in an overcrowded area at Punta Arenas airport,” he wrote in his email to newsinenglish.no. “That was probably a superspreader event.” He believes Hurtigruten didn’t follow the “protocol … to keep passengers in a safe bubble” during the transfer.

Despite calls to four separate “press contacts” at Hurtigruten on Friday, there’s been no response from the company regarding the outbreak. Newsinenglish.no also sent 14 questions in writing to email addresses for press contacts including two vice presidents at both Hurtigruten Expeditions and Hurtigruten Group early Friday morning. By mid-afternoon there was still no response to newsinenglish.no’s inquiries regarding passenger complaints or to questions including crew members’ health, compensation offers and the risks of operating cruises when the pandemic still isn’t over.

There were no passenger complaints, meanwhile, about the medical attention received on board. A ship’s doctor reportedly visited infected passengers who were confined to “red zone” cabins every day, taking their temperatures, “checking blood oxygen levels” and offering medication if needed. “The medical staff was very responsive, no complaints here,” one passenger wrote.

Passengers on the last fateful cruise also received letters before arriving back in Punta Arenas on Tuesday in which unnamed Hurtigruten officials claimed they were “truly sorry for the inconvenience caused.” They pointed to the company’s “robust infection control measures in place throughout the ship” and claimed it was “a difficult decision to return to Chile, as your wellbeing is of paramount importance to us.”

Upon arrival in Punta Arenas, everyone on board the vessel had to take a PCR test on Wednesday (March 16) unless they’d tested positive during the cruise and completed their isolation on the ship. If the PCR test results were negative, passengers were allowed to disembark on Thursday (March 17) and fly to Santiago on a scheduled charter flight.

A photo of the letter delivered to Hurtigruten passengers whose cruise was disrupted and shortened because of Covid infection on board.

Passengers, even though Hurtigruten consistently calls them “guests,” were due to be moved to a “designated isolation hotel” for seven days at their own expense if their PCT results were positive. They were told to contact their travel insurance companies “regarding costs incurred should you have to isolate.” They’d also have to seek compensation for the costs of any rescheduled flights if they’d been infected on board. Hurtigruten didn’t offer any.

Passengers could, however, choose between receiving a 15 percent refund of the sailing price they’d paid, or a 40 percent discount on a future cruise with Hurtigruten Expeditions departing before March 31, 2024 and booked by June 30.  One woman who’d been on board the Covid-distrupted cruise on the Amundsen over New Year said they’d been offered a 20 percent refund or a cruise credit of 50 percent of what they’d paid. It was unclear why passengers on the latest cruise were offered less.

Newsinenglish.no did hear back on Friday from a passenger who’d been held in isolation on board the ship but then was cleared by Chilean authorities, allowed to fly back to Santiago and on to the US. He reported, though, that around 40 passengers had to stay behind in a hotel in Punta Arenas that charges USD 169 a night. Some couples were reportedly split up, with a spouse left behind.

“If you add the number of Covid passengers who were released earlier and are able to travel out, there must have been at least some 60 Covid cases on this trip,” he said. “These are our estimates, but it would be a shocking number, 25 percent of all passengers. This is something you may want to ask Hurtigruten.” That was among questions submitted, with no immediate response.

He was told the ship was still set to sail off again on Thursday (March 17) on another cruise, with a new group of passengers on board. According to Marine Traffic, the Roald Amundsen did indeed sail from Punta Arenas on Thursday, and was underway to Yankee Harbour in Antarctica. It was unclear whether the new passengers were informed of the outbreak that had just occurred on board. There was no response from Hurtigruten to questions about any infection among crew members or whether the new cruise should have been cancelled, given the recent outbreak on board.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund

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