‘COVER-UP’ OF COVID-19 OUTBREAK: E-mails show Hurtigruten ‘doesn’t want this to come out’; local tourism officials worry alarm about Svalbard resulting from incomplete media coverage

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An e-mail declaring ““Hurtigruten doesn’t want this to come out, they want to have control of this themselves,” regarding COVID-19 infections aboard the Roald Amundsen is among the evidence escalating accusations against the company about its handling of the situation to new levels, as authorities and Norwegian media pursue an increasing list of violations involving its employees.

The outbreak resulted in Norway cancelling all cruise ships carrying more than 100 people for two weeks and global alarm about cruise tourism resuming during the pandemic. It is also heightening the already immense concern about Svalbard’s tourism, with local leaders saying the vast international media coverage mentioning the archipelago is omitting the fact the area remains free of known cases and the infected ship did not making any port stops while here.

Hurtigruten admitted violating several internal procedures, but did not provide specifics, when it announced Monday it was cancelling all cruises until further notice. But Norwegian media began reporting Monday afternoon e-mails showed the company tried to keep the COVID-19 outbreak from becoming public, based on communications between the companies public relations employees and local health care authorities in the northern town of Hadsel.

Hadsel authorities stated during the middle of last week they needed to send out a public announcement one of their local residents had tested positive for COVID-19 and his infection was linked to a cruise on Hurtigruten.

“Hurtigruten doesn’t want this to come out, they want to have control of this themselves,” Martin Larsen Drageset, a city-employed doctor,  wrote in an e-mail last Wednesday obtained by NRK and Nordlys. Hurtigruten claimed there there wasn’t enough information to support the claim, to the doctor’s disagreement.

But Hadsel “toned down” and “moderated” it’s wording, with a press release stating the matter involved an unnamed travel company.

At least five high-ranking company officials knew about the situation,  according to AldriMer.

In addition, Hurtigruten was told three days before the ship’s first sailing on July 17 that new regulations meant ” the vessel’s crew and passengers can only go ashore in Norway if the crew and passengers consist exclusively of persons who at the time of boarding are not covered by the quarantine obligation,” Verdens Gang reported. The passengers were allowed to disembark from that trip despite the knowledge an infected person was aboard. Norwegian Minister of Health Minister Bent Høie stated in an e-mail to other health officials “we must find out whether Hurtigruten has broken the law here, when they have Filipino crews and let passengers go ashore.”

Hurtigruten publicly announced its involvement Friday when crew members tested positive. Since then more than 40 crew members and passengers have tested positive, and authorities are scrambling to determine the extent of the spread as nearly 400 people aboard the ship during two infected cruises have been ordered into quarantine.

Høie reacted harshly to the news at a press conference Monday afternoon, saying confidence in the company has been sharply undermined.

“Hurtigruten was one of those trying to get the government to open up for this type of cruise activity,” Høie said. “Therefore I think it’s sad we’ve landed in this situation.”

But despite the overwhelming criticism, at least one couple aboard the ship is publicly expressing surprise at news of the outbreak and defending Hurtigruten’s virus precautions. Reidar Eie and Randi Rygh from Jørpeland told Aftenposten infection control was taken very seriously during the July 17 trip.

“Several of the hotels we stayed at could learn a few things about infection control from Hurtigruten,” one of them told the newspaper.

While the company has cancelled all of its tourism-oriented cruise ship voyages, its scheduled coastal traffic between Bergen and Kirkenes is continuing because “fundamentally different and there is no indication that procedures have been broken here,” according to a company statement.

The outbreak is being reported by essentially every major media outlet and a high percentage of lower-profile ones, due to its potential global impact on efforts to restart tourism activities. But Visit Svalbard Ronny Brunvoll told multiple Norwegian media outlets including High North News this week he’s concerned that while many of the articles mention the Roald Amundsen was sailing in Svalbard during the infected cruises, none mention the ship made no port stops here (it did, however, pick up two women who met it by boat near Longyearbyen and drop them off at a remote cabin, in violation of health regulations).

“We fear it shall appear true and thus led to further challenges for a tourist industry in Longyearbyen that is already under much pressure” Brunvoll said.