The Scottish Government is exploring the option of putting on a second ferry to ease travel woes in the Western Isles, Nicola Sturgeon has confirmed.
Ms Sturgeon made the announcement during First Minister’s Questions after she was quizzed by Western Isles MSP Alasdair Allan.
Mr Allan raised concerns from islanders as ferry capacities remain capped at 35% because of social distancing requirements.
Some have spoken of their fears over job security due to being unable to plan travel to and from work.
Three-week wait to book a car on the Ullapool to Stornoway ferry
A second dedicated vessel to sail the Minch has long been called for by islanders and elected representatives.
Mr Allan said: “The very important physical distancing measures put in place on ferries to prevent importation of the virus to island communities have also brought serious challenges to island life.
“Ordinary passenger capacity on CalMac ferries is down to around 35% and it is currently nearly three weeks before a car can be booked on the Ullapool to Stornoway crossing, and a similar picture on other island routes.
“What steps can be taken to assess if there are safe measures available that will allow an increase in ferry capacity in order to support the wider social and economic position for island communities?”
‘These are really important issues’
Ms Sturgeon said Transport Scotland regularly engages with ferry provider CalMac on how to “balance safety measures and efforts to maximise capacity”.
The most recent meeting took place last week.
But her final sentence was the one that offered the most hope to islanders battling against ferry disruption.
The first minister said: “We are continuing to explore the potential charter of an additional vessel that will provide additional capacity on the Stornoway – Ullapool route and the transport minister will keep the member and others updated.”
Ms Sturgeon said she recognised the frustration of people who live in the islands and rely on ferries to get to and from their home.
She said: “Obviously crew and passenger safety is a key factor in determining the capacity of vessels but the impact is understood.
“Vehicle capacity is mostly unaffected by physical distancing but there is currently particularly high levels of demand for travel to the islands.”
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, 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.”
“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
Mr MacLeod 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.
“If you have a family emergency and you have to go to the mainland, or vice-versa, you can’t – it’s impossible.”
Turn up and go spaces have been created for islanders to allow travel at shorter notice in response to earlier concerns.
Inverness councillor Duncan Macpherson took to social media earlier today to express his concern at being unable to attend a funeral on Uist due to being unable to book a ferry.
Trying to book a CalMac Ferry to Uist to attend a family funeral – but @CalMacFerries are restricted by @scotgov @NicolaSturgeon to 35% capacity. Yet 60,000+ crowd allowed into Wembley for Euro Final – it’s a poor show at a very sad time! @BBCScotlandNews @BBCHighlands @STVNews pic.twitter.com/SesShxJdrO
— Duncan Macpherson (@dmacphers1) July 13, 2021