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The human consequences of ferry services disruption was laid out in a recent debate in the Scottish Parliament about the crisis facing CalMac’s fleet.
MSPs heard about an Arran ferry being fully booked 149 days in advance, islanders unable to make hospital appointments, Mull farmers who couldn’t get their livestock to market, and B&Bs losing bookings.
Dr Alasdair Allan, SNP MSP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, told the chamber: ‘This summer, a combination of factors made ferry services nothing short of intolerable. ‘Some of those factors were well beyond normal control—chiefly, the fact that vessels were on average running at only a third of their normal capacity, due to social distancing requirements.
‘Tourists have the luxury of booking tickets months in advance. Most other people do not plan their lives that far ahead—nor can they. This summer, that fact led to an unfortunate tension between the needs of tourists, who are vital to the island economy, and those of islanders.
‘I live in Lewis and I am very aware that at one point this summer people simply could not travel anywhere, for almost any reason. For me, the low point was reached when people started telling me that they were unable to visit even very ill relatives. CalMac staff and crews went to great efforts to find ways of transporting people in that situation.
‘Services would be more likely to improve in future if anyone on the CalMac and CMAL boards lived on an island that depended on the ferry services that those companies provide.
‘I hope that CalMac’s new booking system, which is due in the spring, will be an improvement on what everyone acknowledges to be the entirely inadequate booking system that exists now.’
Jenni Minto, SNP MSP for Argyll and Bute, added: ‘One haulier could not get a booking to bring cattle feed to Islay. Farmers cannot get their livestock to market from Mull. B&B owners are losing bookings. People who have hospital appointments on the mainland cannot get car space on the ferry.
‘We should recognise how many sailings leave on time and complete their service every day. There have been small but important improvements. The requirement for camper vans to have bookings and not sit in standby queues has made a difference to local people who want to travel at short notice.’
Kenneth Gibson, SNP MSP for Cunninghame North, said: ‘Scotland’s ferry service is perceived to be unreliable and to lack resilience. Last summer, of the 538 sailings to and from Brodick in July, not one was cancelled. In contrast, in August, Covid-19 infections among the crew of the Caledonian Isles and technical problems on the MV Isle of Arran led to the loss of 86 sailings. It is the experience of August, just as capacities were increased, that islanders and visitors remember.
‘In one instance that was highlighted to me by the Isle of Arran ferry committee, a sailing was supposedly fully booked 149 days in advance. In reality, relatively few sailings are fully booked in October. When I last sailed from Brodick a fortnight ago, the car deck was half empty but, if someone trying to book next week will not find it easy. The ferry committee has repeatedly asked CalMac why that is the case.
‘Arran’s current staff shortages are around three times higher than the mainland average, which is partly due to concerns over ferry reliability, which makes commuting to the island difficult. It also makes families reluctant to move to the island, which is necessary to boost the workforce and the economy and to maintain a sustainable population.’
Donald Cameron, Conservative MSP for the Highlands and Islands, said: ‘The Scottish Government has recognised the need to reverse the trend of rural depopulation,’ but, he said, it ‘cannot have that worthy ambition and, at the same time, comprehensively fail to ensure that the very island communities that we seek to revitalise possess a robust and reliable ferry service.
‘Someone from the Western Isles hospitality industry told me that she has lost dozens of bookings due to the lack of capacity on the MV Loch Seaforth. A person from Islay had the same issue. A constituent from Tiree contacted me some time ago, when the MV Hebrides had been redeployed elsewhere and the island was left without a service. This August, a man from Lewis could not get off his own island for three weeks. In any other scenario, that would be inexcusable.
‘There are countless such stories from people in our island communities. It is not good enough.’