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Islanders ramp up the pressure for quicker easing of restrictions after latest Western Isles ferry breakdown

Islanders have been inundating elected representatives with concerns over ferry capacity.
Islanders have been inundating elected representatives with concerns over ferry capacity.

Frustrated islanders are peppering their local politicians with complaints as the Western Isles reels from its latest ferry fiasco.

A ship was chartered by the Scottish Government last Monday to relieve pressure on the beleaguered Ullapool to Stornoway route.

The freight vessel MV Arrow joined CalMac’s fleet on a short-term basis until September 7.

But the ship broke down after less than a week and its sailings are now cancelled until the end of the month.

As frustration grows, Western Isles MSP Alasdair Allan said three-quarters of his dealings with constituents are now about the ferry problems.

‘It needs immediate government action’

Ferry capacity remains capped at 35%, though it looks likely it will be back at 100% once restrictions ease on August 9.

In the meantime, elected representatives are calling for quicker easing to allow islanders to travel more freely between the islands and the mainland.

The MV Arrow cargo ship

Local MP Angus MacNeil said: “We were delighted the Arrow arrived and we were obviously frustrated to see it had broken down.

“In the meantime, I have been asking the transport minister for an increase in the passenger capacity because they are only running at 35% on CalMac boats.

“It looks as if on August 9 they will put it up to 100% so we are asking for something in the meantime, for instance, putting it up to 70%.

“That is important because right now we have Hial strikes on the go too and some people can’t fly and are reliant on the ferry to get to the likes of Inverness or Glasgow – but Cal Mac are full.

“It needs immediate government action. We are at real crisis point with the Arrow broken down and the Hial strikes.

MP Angus MacNeil

“It looks like they forgot to increase the capacity last time they had a review, and the expectation is that it is back to 100% from August 9, surely to goodness we can get something in the meantime.

We need a responsible government that is able to look and react quickly and not to be distant and high-handed about it.”

Arrow’s arrival allowed for additional sailings

The MV Arrow had been brought in to cover the freight sailing on the route six days of the week, allowing the Cal Mac vessel, MV Loch Seaforth, to put on an additional two passenger sailings a week.

It had delivered a more than 50% increase in capacity for freight.

Mr Allan, MSP for the Western Isles, said the ferry issues have been dominating his caseload.

He added:  “We need to see what the plan is post-August 9.

Alasdair Allan MSP

“I have certainly been making the case that if we go on with 35% capacity much longer, we will be in a very, very difficult position.

“I am now getting a continual stream of people who are quite, understandably, anxious to know at some stage in the future if it will be beyond 35% because it is difficult to see how capacity can be met on that basis.”

Mr Allan said chartering of vessels and additional sailings must be considered to ease woes ahead of new ships joining the fleet.

“People who live on the islands are finding it very difficult to get on a ferry other than on a standby basis, which brings with it no guarantees,” he continued.

“If you want to go and visit a relative who is ill, or if you want to get to your job, or if you want to run a business – you just can’t do that.”

Cautious easing of restrictions

A Transport Scotland spokesman said they recognise the frustration of locals at the breakdown of the Arrow with Cal Mac “working hard to maximise available capacity on the route”.

Transport Scotland have accepted the CMAL fleet is aging, with a £580million investment programme being implemented over the next five years.

One-metre physical distancing is currently in place on public transport

The spokesman added: “The first minister confirmed to parliament that following the review of physical distancing, 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.

“The staged process has already allowed for physical distancing to be reduced to one metre in outdoor settings and will potentially see it removed altogether as a legal requirement from August 9.”

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