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Stranded: How reduced ferry capacity is affecting job security

CalMac ferries are currently operating at 35% capacity.
CalMac ferries are currently operating at 35% capacity.

Reduced capacity on ferries to the Western Isles is causing a backlog in bookings –  leaving some islanders stranded and fearful for the future of their jobs.

Caledonian MacBrayne vessels are currently operating at 35% capacity due to social distancing requirements.

However, as the busier summer season takes hold, some are being left in limbo over when they can return home or leave for work.

Islanders working on the mainland have encountered issues where they have been told that the next available sailing is not possible for more than two weeks.

The Caledonian MacBrayne Loch Seaforth. Picture by Kami Thomson.

Job opportunities affected by the Western Isles ferry

Reduced capacity for foot passengers has also resulted in some being able to book vehicles on board ferries – but not themselves.

Iain MacLeod, a welder from Lochs in Lewis, has said he and his son have been forced to use holiday entitlement in order to travel home for the weekend from their work on the mainland.

Mr MacLeod said: “We have had to tell our employers that we are taking two days holiday – on Friday and Monday – because we can’t get on and off the island in time.

“The next couple of weeks, I don’t know what we are going to do because we can’t get bookings at all.

There should be spaces made available for locals to travel back and forth.”

Iain MacLeod

“We are going to have to stay an extra night or try to get a freight ferry, which is no use to anyone as you cannot book in advance.”

The duo had been booking their travel weeks in advance but are no longer able to due to a rise in demand.

They are also unable to book in advance for the 3am freight sailing, leaving it to chance if they can get on the ferry or not.

Discrepancies between ferry travel and other modes of transport causing confusion

He added: “What annoys us is you go on a plane and you are less than a metre from the person in front of you, yet you can’t do that on a ferry.

“I have nothing against tourism but right now the ferry is 95% full with tourists.

“There should be spaces made available for locals to travel back and forth.

“If you have a family emergency and you have to go to the mainland, or vice versa, you can’t – it’s impossible.”

Mr MacLeod has said he has respect for CalMac staff on the ground who are “just simply doing their job” but says the burden lies with the ferry operator and decision-makers.

He added: “The islands is suffering due to the negligence of the Scottish Government to deal with the ferry situation.

“Everyone is talking about it yet nothing seems to be getting done about it.”

‘We must continue to ease with caution’

There is some light at the end of the tunnel as restrictions across Scotland are due to ease next week.

But they are not likely to be removed completely until August 9.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “Our assessment is that, although we remain in a situation where we must continue to ease with caution, we will target a staged process for the lifting of legal restrictions on physical distancing.

Social distancing measures will be eradicated in August, if progress continues to be made

“The current guidance is already for one metre physical distancing on public transport.

“We continue to engage with ferry operators and island stakeholders on this, as well as other issues impacting the recovery of the island economies from the impact of the Covid pandemic.

“CalMac already retain a small number of turn up and go tickets on pressured routes that are of particular use to islanders.”

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