(Illustration courtesy of Filter Nyheter)
Editor’s note: The following is inspired by, expands on and updates an article by NRK with our own reporting, plus other global media. It summarizes the growing list of controversies surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak aboard Hurtigruten’s Roald Amundsen during two week-long voyages in Svalbard in July. The outbreak was publicly announced when the ship docked in Tromsø on July 31, but company officials knew about the problem two days earlier and attempted to cover it up. Furthermore, nearly all aspects of the outbreak from ignoring crew concerns about safety precautions to lack of cooperation with health authorities to allowing infected passengers off the ship unmonitored have come to light. A week after the initial reports, at least 41 crew members and 21 passengers are infected with the virus.
1. Employees from the Philippines went straight to work instead of mandatory quarantine
Most of infected crew members infected are from the Philippines. Under Norwegian COVID-19 regulations they should have been quarantined for 10 days upon entering the country. Hurtigruten CEO Daniel Skjeldam said the workers were tested twice for the virus in their home country before departing and “international rules are such that they are quarantined on board the ship after arrival. That quarantine means that you can participate in working on board, but not go ashore.” But experts on laws and regulations at sea say Skjeldam’s interpretation is wrong.
2. Failing to address crew concerns such as shared living quarters
Two-thirds of crew members aboard the Hurtigruten’s ships were forced to live in shared cabins when the outbreak occurred. Many expressed concerns to supervisors that were passed on to top officials, but little to no action resulted. “We try to reduce this as much as possible, but sometimes it is unfortunately not possible,” CEO Daniel Skjeldam wrote in a prepared statement after the concerns were made public a week after news of the outbreak broke.
3. Failure to include quarantine obligations in its mandatory infection control plan
The company submitted a required 50-page plan detailing procedures to prevent and contain COVID-19 infections on board ships to The Governor of Svalbard, but it lacks a single mention of quarantine obligations. The University Hospital of Northern Norway in Tromsø approved Hurtigruten’s infection control plan on June 29. and the professionally assessed to be in accordance with the Norwegian Directorate of Health’s guide, it appears from the approval dated 29 June. “It is the companies themselves that are responsible for complying with the plan and regulations. This is trust-based,” Svalbard Lt. Gov. Sølvi Elvedahl told Verdens Gang this week, going on to explain the details of quarantine provisions are not strictly mandated because compliance with national restrictions is presumed.
4. Failure to notify passengers
Top Hurtigruten officials knew on July 29 a passenger with the virus was aboard a cruise whose passengers disembarked in July 24. But they did not notify those passengers on that cruise or the subsequent one from July 24-31 despite urging from Norway’s Institute of Public Health.
5. Ship’s doctors had questionable/insufficient credentials and misdiagnosed COVID-19 patients
“One of the ship’s doctors on the expedition ship Roald Amundsen has been deprived of his medical license twice. The other doctor did not have Norwegian authorization,” NRK reported a week after the outbreak was first reported. Furthermore, they wrongly believed sick patients aboard weren’t infected with COVID-19 based on the symptoms, but it took medical officials at a hospital in Tromsø two minutes to make the correct diagnosis when the patients arrived.
6. Delaying public notification of the outbreak
Hurtigruten waited two days (until July 31) after company officials knew an infected person was on the ship to publicly announce the situation. Furthermore, the company announced crew members had tested positive, without mentioning the passenger on the July 17 cruise who was infected.
7. Convincing officials in Hadsel to cover up news of the passenger with the initial infection
Municipal officials in Hadsen, the hometown of the passenger aboard the Roald Amundsen first diagnosed with the virus, let Hurtigruten know during the middle of last week a public notification was necessary. However, a top medical official for the city stated in an e-mail “Hurtigruten doesn’t want this to come out, they want to have control of this themselves,” and the city ultimately “toned down” and “moderated” its wording with a press release stating the matter involved an unnamed travel company.
8. The passengers were allowed to leave the ship
Passengers aboard the July 31 cruise were allowed to go ashore in Tromsø despite the positive tests for crew members. Among the 21 passengers (all Norwegians) who have tested positive for the virus so far is a 10-year-old child.
9. Providing a “lift” for two women from a town to a cabin in Svalbard
While the Roald Amundsen did not make any port stops in Svalbard during its two voyages, it did pick up two women brought to the ship by speedboat from Longyearbyen and drop them off several hours later at a cabin on the west coast of Spitsbergen, in violation of health regulations. The two women were in contact two days later with a sailboat carrying ten people that reached Longyearbyen the following day, potentially putting both the sailboat occupants and people in town at risk in addition to the women themselves due to the company’s suppression of information. The women have so far tested negative, as have those aboard the sailboat who were not allowed off the vessel until the results were known.
10. Infected on multiple ships?
The outbreak caused great tension on two other Hurtigruten ships, the Fridtjof Nansen and Spitsbergen (the latter of which was sailing in Svalbard and scheduled to dock in Longyearbyen this week). Four of the 162 employees on the Fridtjof Nansen are now in isolation with mild cold symptoms while all other crew is tested, and passengers are being offered recommended tests. Spitsbergen was banned from docking in Longyearbyen and all aboard were not allowed to disembark in Tromsø until this Friday when all tests were all negative.
11. Criminal consequences for the company and its officials?
Police and health officials Troms and Finnmark are investigating the company’ actions. The police are determining if the company or officials violated the Infection Control Act, which could result in fines for the company and fines/prison for individuals. The city of Tromsø is also considering a claim for damages against the company. While Hurtigruten’s board of directors publicly announced full support of Skjeldam as the company’s CEO, Bent Martini – its leader of maritime operations who was aboard one of the infected cruises – announced his resignation a week after the ship reached Tromsø.
12. Ship doctors and company officials failing to cooperate with investigators
In what some observers described as a “disgraceful” and “‘unforgiveable” move, two doctors aboard the Roald Amundsen were ordered confined to their cabins on the ship due their handling of the outbreak, including inadequately working with medical officials in Tromsø. Furthermore, four officials from the company’s headquarters went aboard the quarantined ship last Friday morning before the outbreak was widely known, then failed to tell officials in Tromsø about the visit. It wasn’t until the following Friday the city announce the employees had been expelled from their office and quarantined.
13. Future consequences for the company
Many are question how badly the company’s long-established positive reputation has been damaged and for how long. The consensus is current management may not be able to recover and the company’s short-term brand is heavily damaged, but its long-term image – especially aboard – should recover.
14. Damage to already ailing cruise tourism industry worldwide
Headlines at essentially every major news website reported the outbreak, generally with headlines such as “major blow for cruises as COVID-19 outbreak swamps one of the first sailings to return.” The articles, noting officials are “scrambling” to notify potentially infected passengers and contain the spread of the virus, revived widespread fears about the cruise ships being a “superspreader” environment and cancellations of future sailings went far beyond Hurtigruten, beginning with Norway cancelling all passenger voyages of more than 100 people for at least two weeks. Among the large-scale impacts from several outbreaks that began with news of the Roald Amundsen, the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) announced Wednesday it will be extending its voluntary suspension of U.S. cruise operations for all member lines until at least Oct. 31.