LIFELINE ferry operator CalMac has warned of continued issues on being able to get cars on vessels despite the lifting of physical distancing guidelines.
Nicola Sturgeon has said that almost all of Scotland’s remaining Covid-19 restrictions are to end from Monday.
That means social distancing will be dropped in most settings, meaning more capacity in pubs and restaurants and larger crowds at sporting events and concerts.
It also means that the number of passengers that can be carried on board ferries will return to normal levels. Ferries have been operating at around 30% of normal capacity.
But the state-owned ferry operator said while this will improve capacity for foot passengers, vehicle ticket availability is likely to remain “limited” on some services, as capacity on car decks is already being reached during periods of high demand.
Island residents had lodged concerns over the “lottery” of getting on and off Scotland’s islands as it emerged some routes had little or no space for cars for over three weeks.
Islanders made demands for extra sailings as the lifeline ferry network struggles to cope with demand exacerbated by Covid restrictions remaining in place and breakdowns to the ageing ferry fleet.
CalMac said passengers were being advised to plan ahead as much as they can as their preferred choice of sailing “may not always be available”. There will also be changes to the exemption that has been in place during Covid that allowed passengers to remain in their vehicles on certain sailings.
Due to Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) rules, passengers and freight drivers will no longer be permitted to stay with their vehicle on enclosed vehicle decks of roll-on roll-off vessels. Passengers travelling from Wemyss Bay-Rothesay, Berneray-Leverburgh, and Oban-Craignure (MV Coruisk) sailings will therefore no longer be able to stay in their vehicles during the crossing and must exit their vehicles.
CalMac said that to reduce the risk of new Covid-19 strains spreading, some mitigations will remain in place.
Face coverings will continue to be mandatory inside ferries and ports unless exempt, and increased vessel turnaround times will continue to allow for enhanced cleaning. Perspex screens will be retained in ports and on vessels for the protection of staff and passengers.
CalMac operations director Robert Morrison said: “It is good news that we are finally able to open up our ferries to their full capacities following the relaxation of Covid regulations.
“I know this has been a source of great frustration for local communities, businesses and travellers during an extremely busy summer period. With many people focussing on holidaying at home and a period of sustained good weather, it has placed extra pressure on the system.
“It is vital to note, however, that we still recommend booking ahead as many of the car deck spaces are already reaching capacity. The majority of the capacity being freed up is for passenger space on deck.
“We are really looking forward to welcoming more passengers on board and providing that world class service we are renowned for.”
Research by the Herald on July 21 revealed that the worst hit service for a car booking provided by CalMac was Mallaig on the Highlands’ west coast to Lochboisdale on South Uist which typically provides one crossing a day. There was no availability to book in a car online till August 13.
On the route from Uig on the Isle of Skye to Lochmaddy on North Uist which typically provides two crossings a day, there were no crossings available till August 11.
On the Uig to Tarbert on Harris route where there was typically two sailings a day there was also nothing till August 11.
On the Ardrossan to Arran run, one of the busiest in Scotland, there are typically nine sailings a day, there was only two sailings available for the end of last week – at 6pm on Wednesday and Thursday. There were no further spaces till Tuesday of this week. Islanders have told of having to book weeks in advance to get a ferry and putting increased pressure to provide extra ferries and sailings.