Associate feature: CalMac on how ferry travel has changed through the pandemic
The chief executive of David MacBrayne Ltd on providing a lifeline service and protecting vulnerable communities
“As of yesterday, we carried two per cent of the number of people we carried on the same day last year.”
As Duncan Mackison explains, it became obvious very early on in the spread of COVID-19 that the pandemic would have a massive impact on CalMac’s normal operations.
The UK moved to lockdown on 23 March, and CalMac reacted quickly, reducing its timetable to an essential lifeline service, operating at less than 30 per cent of the normal winter timetable. Since then CalMac has seen a reduction in passenger demand to four per cent of normal traffic volume, motor vehicles to nine per cent and commercial traffic to 45 per cent. Meanwhile shielding and self-isolation among staff resulted in a peak of 12 per cent of workers being unavailable, though that has since fallen to around seven per cent.
Yet the decision to restrict services to Scotland’s islands was an easy one. As the crisis grew the ferry operator launched into consultations with island communities, tourism operators and Transport Scotland, with a clear consensus emerging over the need to limit travel to the islands as part of attempts to protect fragile communities.
In fact, the chief executive of David MacBrayne Ltd says that by March it had become apparent that CalMac staff would have to form part of the frontline in the fight against coronavirus, with the company holding a huge responsibility to maintain the health of those living on the islands.
Mackison says: “We were the ones taking tickets off people, or taking bookings, so one of the things we did early on was to decide to stop taking bookings in advance, because we didn’t want to be in a position where we were making commitments we couldn’t respond to, and we also wanted to have control at the point of embarkation, and make sure it was eligible people, complying with the guidelines, getting on the ferries.
“Moving into it, although it was challenging, and there was a lot of discussion with Transport Scotland, the Scottish Government and community groups, it was a reasonably straightforward exercise, because there was a clear mandate, and compelling views, and consensus about what was coming towards us and how to react with lockdown.”
Yet clearly running a ferry service in a pandemic is not easy, and while CalMac is still operating its core services, covering more or less all of its routes, with mostly the same vessels as usual, the number of voyages has been reduced following the need to shut down tourism to the islands.
Mackison says: “On most of the islands, self-evidently, the ferry is the only way on and the only way off, so in any conversation around lockdown, and all these sensitivities around the spread of the virus, we are the thing, if you like, that embodies all those risks, because we are the one thing that takes you on and off.
“We have had to be very mindful of, not only what pressures we were going to come under ourselves in terms of our staff and infection rates among our staff, and the impact that would have on our operations, but also what impact that would have on the services we provide, the timetables we operate.
“We took a really structured approach since the start, where we basically set out a series of assumptions around volumes of travellers that we expected, numbers of staff we would have available, and then we designed a timetable that would be able to maintain lifeline services with those constraints applied. We did that really early on, way back in March, in consultation with Transport Scotland and the communities we serve.
“It’s important to remember that while we were doing this, the vast majority of people that work for CalMac live on islands, out and about on the network, so they share the same fears and concerns and worries as anyone else who lives there. So we have to manage that and be aware of it within our own workforce.”
Island communities, concerned by the potential impact of the virus on strained local services, have been widely supportive of the decision. But how can the operator look forward, and start to consider the next steps in loosening restrictions?
“Moving out of lockdown is inevitably going to be more complex,” Mackison says, with the chief executive emphasising the need for partnership working and consultation to ensure that any move to open up services can be done safely, and in line with guidance.
“We are balancing quite specific transport related factors - for example, on our vessels, if you apply social distancing measures at two metres, unsurprisingly that really constrains the number of people we can carry. So on our larger vessels, we would be able to carry 17-18 per cent of the people they would usually carry at this time of year. The volumes of passengers are right down, which is a good thing, in some ways, because it shows people are following the advice. But moving forward we will be in an environment where capacity is constrained, so we need to be clear about who is going to travel, and if demand outstrips capacity, how choices are made about priorities.
“For our part, we are engaging with other transport groups - regional groups, which link us into bus and rail companies - and with Transport Scotland we are starting to talk to local authorities as well, to try and think about how we coordinate transport activities. But we also have an independent Community Board, which has been a great help. We have representatives of all the different areas in the network, so we can talk to them and find out what community views are and ensure they are fed into government thinking. Then we are also engaging with Visitor Management Organisations - VisitScotland, the Chambers of Commerce, the Scottish Tourism Alliance and then different island groups. It is a huge range, and the government have tough decisions to make going forward but at the heart of it is the essential need to maintain safety, and make sure island communities are protected, while looking at how things can be opened up with the capacity constraints in place because of social distancing.”
It’s important to remember that the vast majority of people that work for CalMac live on islands, out and about on the network, so they share the same fears and worries as anyone else who lives on the island"
At present the ferry operator is still not taking advanced bookings, to give it a greater degree of control over those travelling while allowing it more flexibility in how it operates. But while CalMac is examining how to go about loosening restrictions, at present it is impossible to be sure when that might happen, with Mackison targeting the start of July for increasing services again. At that point CalMac will hope to move to a bigger timetable, somewhere closer to its normal schedule for winter sailings.
But even then, more difficult decisions will follow, as transport bodies are forced to prioritise who to open up services to, beyond local residents.
“Conversations are taking place between the Scottish Government and the tourism sector and other community groups on the islands around how you might choose to prioritise different types of travellers when we come out of lockdown,” he says. “There are no hard and fast rules and we have to work with the government on what the consensus is from our island communities. It will be very difficult to balance competing interests but ultimately the Scottish Government will be the ones making that call."
“We’re not the police. We can appeal to people’s better judgement and we can make them aware of guidance. It really helps us when, as there has been, you get really clear messages coming down from the Scottish Government. In recent announcements Michael Matheson has specifically mentioned ferries, which is really helpful because the people taking the tickets, while people are in a queue of cars at a port, can appeal to it and say, ‘is this really essential?’ and I have to say that’s worked really well.
"People have respected it. On the Easter Weekend we were really hoping things worked, and they did, people were really helpful."
“And actually, throughout this process the freight transport has continued - it’s down by maybe 30-40 per cent over this period, but people should understand that actually, getting supplies to shops, getting seafood off the island, that has continued. The economic use of the ferry service has continued, but the interesting bit moving forward is the tourism and visitor side of the economy. That’s vital.”