THE ROLE ferry and port staff played in the initial stages of the coronavirus outbreak has been praised by council leaders and elected members.
Infrastructure director John Smith told a meeting of Shetland Islands Council’s harbour board on Wednesday that keeping inter-island ferries running for essential staff and services “made a really difficult situation for the islands […] that bit more manageable”.
The ferries ran to a reduced timetable for essential travel during lockdown, providing a vital lifeline for Shetland’s islands, before opening up again as restrictions lifted.
A report from Smith to the harbour board also highlighted that full services were available for “oil tankers, aquaculture and the Shetland fishing fleet at council ports and harbours to keep key business sectors operating”.
He praised the professionalism of staff working in ports and harbours during the pandemic.
“We have to be prepared for future spikes, so we have to be able to sustain that service however long it takes to do that,” Smith said.
He added that in recent months “we have demonstrated that we have a resilient service that can cope with unexpected challenges”.
Harbour board chairwoman Andrea Manson also praised the role of ferry and port staff – who she said deserve a “great deal of gratitude” – as did Amanda Hawick and Davie Sandison.
Smith’s report to the harbour board, meanwhile, highlighted – not for the first time – that there are “increasing risks in operating ferry services with ageing vessels and terminals, both in terms of escalating costs and service interruptions”.
The council is pursuing capital funding for a vessel replacement programme from the Scottish Government, but leader Steven Coutts said a submission to ministers on a new Fair Isle ferry and an overhaul of the Whalsay route remains largely unanswered.
“We have not had any positive response to that yet, but it is high on the agenda for the council going forward,” he said.
Responding to south mainland councillor Allison Duncan, Coutts said a replacement Fair Isle ferry was a “very high priority”.
North Mainland member Alastair Cooper, however, said he would “far rather” see the council speaking creatively about fixed links than infrastructure like ferry terminals.
This was something Manson echoed, with the north councillor saying it should “always be put into the mix”.
“That should never come off the table,” she said.
Smith also said the council is investigating options for accessing additional vessel capacity to manage dry-docking and breakdown cover, with the infrastructure director saying this could potentially be in the form of extra tonnage on hire or lease.
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