Members at work

Keeping the lifelines open – what it's like to work on essential island ferry services during the Covid-19 pandemic

22 May 2020

Seafarers working on Britain’s island ferries can count themselves lucky in some respects. After all, they’ve mostly kept their jobs during the Covid-19 pandemic. But as key workers on an essential service, they have had to go into work every day knowing they will be exposed to infection. Two Nautilus members working for lifeline ferry services at opposite ends of the country tell Sarah Robinson what it’s like to do their usual work under some very unusual circumstances

What changes has your company made to its services since the UK started to implement restrictions to limit the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus?

Iain MacKenzie (Caledonian MacBrayne): The company closed the retail areas in early March and the frequency of cleaning was increased in line with the government guidelines.

While the shore-based staff are not legally permitted to refuse travel, they have been questioning people to ensure that they are engaged in essential travel only, and the police remain available to assist if required. They have also stopped accepting cash as a means of payment for travel.

The MCA granted dispensations to some of the vessels which allowed passengers to remain in their vehicles on passage, provided there were no dangerous goods being carried, the vessels had a passage time of one hour or less and the car deck was not fully enclosed.

Near the end of March, the timetables were reduced; this led to several of the vessels being placed into ‘hot lay-up’ with reduced crewing but able to sail at short notice to cover for any breakdowns or if there is an outbreak onboard a vessel. This timetable was further reduced in the middle of April to reflect the reduction of cargo requiring transport.

As a volunteer for the RNLI when on leave, I’ve seen a huge change in how we operate as a crew. Our regular training was suspended, and we avoid entering the lifeboat station to maintain social distancing and prevent possibly contaminating one another. Fortunately, the reduction in tourism and leisure travel has reduced the calls for the lifeboats.

Barbara Charlton (Red Funnel): The first Covid-19 bulletin was promulgated by the CEO on 5 March outlining the need for frequent hand washing and social distancing. HR policies were updated, and directors and CEO took a 20% pay cut.

On ships and in terminals, new hand sanitising stations appeared, and transactions went cashless. Retail venues shut and with that some staff were furloughed. Terminals became lifeless vacant buildings. Lockdown was announced on 23 March. As passenger numbers were dropping the number of ferry crossings was reduced, with shut down of the high-speed foot passenger route. Ferries were only to be taken out occasionally to turn the propellers.

Competition laws were relaxed so that each company operating in the Solent was allocated a lifeline service to provide the Isle of Wight with vital supplies and allow hospital patients and key workers to travel.

At last we received approval for the passengers to remain in their vehicles. With ‘stay in a vehicle sailing’ came a new evacuation plan that all crew needed training on and controversial placement of foot passengers – still ‘socially distanced’ – in hired vans placed on the car deck. Then the number of passengers plummeted, so remaining vehicle ferry crossings were reduced again.

Interviewees for this article: Iain MacKenzie (left) is a chief officer with Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac), working on the island ferries off the west coast of Scotland. He also represents his colleagues as a Nautilus liaison officer and is the deputy vice-chair of the Union's governing Council. Captain Barbara Charlton (right) is a master with Red Funnel, linking the English mainland with the Isle of Wight. She also represents her colleagues as a Nautilus liaison officer

How have the changes affected you and your colleagues?

Iain MacKenzie: The company has, from the start, followed all guidance provided by the government and any staff who suspected they were symptomatic or fell in the ‘vulnerable’ bracket were encouraged to follow the self-isolating guidelines.

I have been on the relief roster for several years and was allocated to three different vessels but as one of these is laid up, I have been deployed to another vessel.

There have been some staff furloughed, as would be expected with a company of 1,500+ staff and some temporary and seasonal staff have had their contracts postponed because the lockdown came before their contracts started.

Barbara Charlton: We were meant to be on our summer rota, running all three car ferries and a cargo vessel; we continue with two ferries and a cargo vessel. Crew members including masters, chief engineers and chief officers were asked to work in whatever capacity there is need for, given the sickness level is close to 20%.

Some staff were furloughed without asking, some were on a voluntary basis. I am furloughed myself and it took a while for the government to enable furloughed Union representatives to continue with their undertaking.

What is it like for you and your colleagues at work onboard ship now?

Iain MacKenzie: One of the earliest measures taken was to endeavour to comply with the social distancing recommendations.

For the crew, this resulted in limiting the numbers using the mess-room at any one time. Meals are now being taken in multiple sittings to limit the numbers in the communal areas, with the result that there is less interaction between officers and ratings.

For the passengers, there is a PA announcement made prior to every departure advising them to maintain social distancing, to cough or sneeze into a tissue or their bent elbow and to wash their hands frequently using the soap in the toilets.

At the end of April, masks were made available for frontline staff and any others who wished to wear them; we received guidance that the masks were to protect others from the mask wearer, not to protect the mask-wearer from others.

Barbara Charlton: We are encouraged to maintain social distance, and the crew mess is closed. We have a supply of hand sanitisers and gloves, but the company did not secure the purchase of appropriate masks.

As difficult as the situation is, it is not impossible. Many people are sewing masks at home – including our employees. Yet until the government makes mask-wearing an official guideline, we do not have to adhere to this. As there is an acute shortage of appropriate masks; there is argument that homemade masks give a sense of false security against the spread.

At the start of the pandemic, our crew first aiders were using as little as a scarf and skiing googles if they needed to tend a patient. Then colleagues came up with personal protective equipment (PPE) from engine room and SOPEP spares.

What about the general atmosphere onboard and the passengers? Do you feel that people appreciate your efforts as key workers to keep lifeline services open?

Iain MacKenzie: The general atmosphere onboard now is different to any that I have experienced ever. Where previously there would be interaction and assistance without thought or hesitation, now individuals take a moment to assess the likely implications of their actions. With the numbers contracting the virus in the Scottish islands increasing and the remoter areas of the network succumbing to cases, the feelings of concern are on the increase.

Many of the company vessels are participating in the ‘Clap for the NHS’ on Thursdays and posting these on social media to highlight their support for the key workers in the NHS, without I feel, recognising their own role as key workers.

Travellers are being questioned more vigorously as to whether their journeys are necessary, and it would appear that the public are appreciative of our efforts as there appears to be a reduction in the traffic.

Barbara Charlton: When foot passengers were asked to stay in a van on the ‘stay in the vehicle’ sailings, they were giving ships’ staff quite an earful.
Another problem is that when we are taking dangerous goods on passenger ferries, we can’t allow passengers to stay in their cars, but staff aren’t always able to tell them about this in advance, which can cause friction, especially when anxious passengers are travelling for something like cancer treatment in Southampton or Portsmouth. Numbers of vehicles also dictate what type of sailing it is, as does the number of available crew to cover the muster list. Lots of variables for ship and shore staff to contend with.

In general, the public reception to our procedures is mixed. Some members of the public do not respect others’ wish to stay apart and it causes agitation. Others are thankful for the efforts Red Funnel makes.

Image: Wightlink ferry crew member Dave Grace fixes a childrens' poster onboard  flagship Victoria of Wight
Wightlink crew member Dave Grace tapes up a child's picture on the vehicle deck of Victoria of Wight. Wightlink asked local youngsters in April 2020 to send in messages of support for key workers including seafarers on the lifeline Portsmouth-Isle of Wight service, and within days over 60 'thank you' posters were sent in

As a Union rep, have you needed to help your colleagues with anything in this period?

Iain McKenzie: As a liaison officer, I have been fortunate thus far in that, although some members thought there was too little being done and too late, the company has followed the guidance from the government, implemented the timetable reductions, provided PPE and hand sanitiser and updated employees as and when information has come available.

Barbara Charlton: Even with traffic down, there are things that we need to keep an eye on from a Union perspective to make sure people are kept safe. Ships’ annual PSSCs are due, other certificates need to be up to date, and with that external contractors need to board for essential maintenance. One ferry was still in refit, and only a few contractors came to work. Crews that look after layup ships are doing what they can, and a lone engineer tries singlehandedly to maintain machinery.

The government is not planning to make significant changes to the lockdown for tourism and leisure until at least July, but the tide has already changed, and more people are coming back to us to travel. Red Funnel staff cannot interrogate whether people’s travel is essential or whether they are key workers. We just have to give the public the ability to maintain social distance – not only between customers but between customers and crew. Unfortunately, many people do not respect this.

For some of the crew, it is impossible to stay apart: it is too loud on deck to communicate standing more than 2m away from each other, and we need to find a solution to this.

I think the most important aspect of this situation is that some workers do not want to expect or ask for anything from the company as they are unsure about the future of the economy. In these dynamic conditions, the company is proactively thinking about all possible outcomes and front line staff must think on their feet.


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