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An online petition calling on CalMac to hold priority spaces for island residents needing last-minute essential trips to the mainland has been signed by more than 1,300 people so far.
The change.org petition is being swamped by supporters wanting the ferry operator to reserve just a few spaces each day on its vessels for islanders finding themselves in need of an unexpected vital trip.
The call comes as CalMac, still operating under limited capacity because of Covid, announced bookings can only be made on a two-week rolling basis as lockdown starts to ease.
CalMac’s website briefly crashed on Tuesday when tickets went on sale for July 1 to July 14, an extremely high volume of calls was also experienced by its call handlers who worked through the queue, thanking customers for their ‘understanding and patience’.
Residents living on islands are worried that with tourism making a comeback, the race to get ferry spaces will get tougher under the new system.
CalMac says space will be made available for emergency travel ‘as it always is’, but that is no comfort and no guarantee says 19-year-old Kelly MacKay who lives in the Western Isles on Harris and started the petition.
‘With current limitations and restrictions on ferry services there is no guarantee that they would be able to accommodate islanders – this is not usual and normal times. That’s why we need CalMac to pledge to hold open a few spaces on each route for locals who need them at the last minute,’ she said.
This week The Oban Times heard from a pregnant woman shielding on Mull who said regardless of whether she gets a reservation or not, she would be driving her car into the booked lane at Craignure on two occasions soon so she can get to essential hospital appointments.
The woman, who wanted to remain anonymous, said: ‘It is absolutely disgusting that I live on Mull, am pregnant, shielding and have two essential hospital appointments to attend and CalMac will not let me make a priority booking.
‘There are islanders needing chemo and NHS workers needing spaces, and CalMac are allowing non essential travel and holiday makers priority! I want to make it public knowledge that they are not ‘a lifeline to the islands’ as they claim to be. They say “We’re sorry but CalMac does not have powers to prioritise passengers. We are not allowed to do this. This would be a matter for the Scottish Government”.
‘Of course they are able to prioritise passengers for medical reasons, if they were a moral company they would do so. I’m not allowed to travel on buses or in taxis or stay in hotels, I need to book my car on the ferry. What kind of company forces someone to compromise their or their unborn baby’s safety?’
Other Mull resident Hylda Marsh said she thought it was ‘vital’ that the island’s residents get some priority bookings on the ferry. ‘Quite a number of people go on and off weekly for hospital appointments the proposed system is causing a lot of stress for these people. Other Mull residents use the ferry on a daily or weekly basis for work reasons,’ she said.
Miss MacKay said the petition is in no-way anti-tourist but ‘It would just be nice that should we need it, we know that there would be a guaranteed space for us on the ferry.’
Oban South and the Isles councillor Roddy McCuish said he ‘wholeheartedly’ supports the petition. ‘These are lifeline services to the islands, not just tourist routes. Islanders deserve and should have priority for ferry spaces when needed,’ he said.
Michael Russell MSP has already written to the Islands Minister, the Tourism Cabinet Secretary and has spoken to CalMac about this issue.
‘I have made the point to CalMac that I think whilst they mean well in opening bookings, the system is not flexible enough for local people. There has to be a degree of priority given to them and they need to build that in. They have been told that this is what is required not only by local people but by the Minister. CalMac’s management need to heed that and do more,’ he said.
CalMac managing director Robbie Drummond said: ‘I have huge sympathy with the situation on our islands where there are competing demands between islanders and those businesses which rely on tourism for the reduced capacity we have available due to Covid-19.
‘We are introducing a new timetable this week that increases capacity through additional sailings and this will be followed by another interim timetable in two weeks’ time that increases sailings and capacity even further.
‘We are working hard with Transport Scotland to ensure that we have the maximum capacity available on our vessels and we stand ready to adapt to any change in the rules around physical distancing as they are announced.’
To view the petition, visit www.change.org/p/cnes-calmac-to-hold-priority-spaces-for-island-residents-as-we-come-out-of-lockdown