Health and port officials in the Western Isles are laying contingency plans for action in the event of passengers or crew with symptoms of Coronavirus arriving into ports in the Western Isles during the upcoming tourist season.

A total of 61 cruise vessel visits are currently expected in Stornoway between April and October this year and there are also significant concerns about the impact on the island economy if tourism income from cruise ships and yacht visitors is lost because of cancellations due to the virus.

Alastair Macarthur of Stornoway Shipping Services said today (Wednesday 11 March): “The Port Authority and NHS Health Authorities are following government guidelines, but there are still huge questions as to what may happen over the next few weeks.

“The island certainly does not have the infrastructure to cope with isolating large numbers of sick crew passengers. We have been trying to persuade government to designate a contingency port to which we could direct ships that need access to medical services and supplies.

“At the same time, the summer business from cruise ships is what keeps my business – and many others – going. If the season is severely hampered and cruises are to be affected it will be catastrophic.

“Every year people shout about ‘what do these people bring into the economy’, but they’ll soon find out if the summer is as bad as is being suggested. Just now we can’t do anything other than wait and see.”

In a notice to mariners issued by Stornoway Port Authority on Friday (6 March), masters of cruise and cargo vessels visiting Western Isles ports are advised of the protocol to follow if any person on board has travelled from or via any of the current risk areas as defined by Health Protection Scotland.

A Maritime Declaration of Health (MDH) is already required for all vessels on arrival from a foreign port, but the new notice says: “In response to this emerging situation regarding COVID-19, Health Protection Scotland and the Scottish Ports Liaison Network require that information be submitted to the Scottish Port Health Authority … [for] ALL cruise vessels [and] container and cargo vessels where anyone on board the vessel has travelled from or via any current risk area if they have been in close contact with confirmed case of COVID-19 infection within the 14 days prior to the vessel arriving in a Scottish Port.”

The notice goes on to say that the master of each vessel should consider any of the listed symptoms of COVID-19 as grounds for suspecting the existence of a disease of an infectious nature.

If the port operator or ship’s agent receives notice that there are ill persons on a vessel and the suspected case is a medical emergency, they must call 999 for medical assistance but must not disembark the patient or arrange alternative transport to a hospital until advised to do so.

Stornoway’s Harbour Master has the responsibility to inform the NHS Public Health (local Health Protection Team) and the Port Health Authority (the local authorities).

Even suspected cases of the illness who do not have severe symptoms may not be disembarked from the vessel until the NHS Health Protection Team has determined follow-up action.

The concerns faced by Western Isles ports are the same as those for other island groups around Scotland, where small communities annually play host to large numbers of visitors.

Lerwick harbourmaster Alexander Simpson told local newspaper The Shetland Times this week that the port authority were employing the same measures as the rest of the world.

He said: “The master of any vessel is required by law to report on the health of crew and passengers prior to a port visit. If there is any issue declared the vessel is placed into quarantine and from there is a process which is followed according to our emergency plans.”

And in Orkney a council statement was released to local paper The Orcadian when the Hurtigruten vessel Fridtjof Nansen made her call to Kirkwall last month. It said: “We have had port health procedures in place for many years for dealing with cases of infection aboard ships of all kind. These procedures are aimed at preventing infection coming into the country.

“If there was a suspected case of COVID-19 aboard a ship the health needs of the individual would be an important consideration, but the most likely outcome is that the ship would be redirected to a port on the Scottish mainland close to more specialist health facilities.”

As the number of cases of Coronavirus (COVID-19) increases across Scotland, the current advice to prevent spread and contain the virus can be found on the NHS Inform website - https://www.nhsinform.scot/coronavirus

Because it is a new illness, we do not know exactly how coronavirus spreads from person to person, but similar viruses are spread by droplets in coughs and sneezes.

Common symptoms include:

  • high temperature or fever
  • cough
  • shortness of breath

How to avoid catching infections like Coronavirus

You can reduce your risk of getting and spreading respiratory infections by:

  • avoiding direct hand contact with your eyes, nose and mouth
  • maintaining good hand hygiene - washing hands with soap and water or alcohol hand sanitiser before eating and drinking, and after coughing, sneezing and going to the toilet. Wash hands for at least 20 seconds.
  • avoiding direct contact with people that have a respiratory illness and avoiding using their personal items such as their mobile phone.
  • covering your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing with disposable tissues and disposing of them in the nearest waste bin after use.
    • Monday to Friday, 8.00am to 10.00pm
    • Saturday and Sunday, 9.00am to 5.00pm

      Currently, there is no vaccine and no specific treatment for the virus.

      Widespread community issuing of personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks and gloves, is not appropriate, and therefore groups and individuals should not approach/contact NHS services requesting PPE. PPE is deployed on a risk assessed, prioritised basis.

      Coronavirus (COVID-19) helpline:  If you do not have symptoms and are looking for general information, a free helpline has been set up on 0800 028 2816.

      The helpline is open:

    Picture: Cruise ships from last summer in Stornoway harbour (John Dyer).