British cruise line Saga Cruises has become the first cruise operator to be awarded Shield+ accreditation from Lloyd’s Register for coronavirus risk management – the highest category of health assurance granted by the maritime safety experts.
The accreditation recognises enhanced safety procedures put in place to reduce the risk of infection, transmission and a subsequent coronavirus outbreak on board two Saga ships: Spirit of Discovery and the line’s brand new ship Spirit of Adventure, which is due to set sail for the first time in May 2021. Speaking exclusively to The Telegraph, Nick Stace, Saga’s chief executive of travel, said: “We want to create the safest place in the world to see the world, and that’s what I think we can do with this [the Shield+ accreditation].”
“I can’t see how you could be safer, than to be on one of our ships. We test five days in advance of coming on board, we then ask for five days of isolation and our customers, I know, will support us on that.
“We then have a sealed car, with a driver who has been tested, come and pick you up and take you to the port where you’re tested again. On board, you’ll find social distancing measures and an isolation wing, should any problems occur. I can’t think you would find anywhere, other than the Sahara desert, that is safer.”
Mr Stace is confident that, come Easter, land-locked Britons will be able to take to the water once again. He told Telegraph Travel: “I bet my mortgage on it. Really I feel very confident and the reason why I feel so confident, is that we have done everything and more that the government asked of us.”
When asked whether his company was prepared to pay for Covid outbreak repatriations – a key stipulation of the government taskforce’s recent report on restarting cruising – Mr Stace said: “The FCDO [Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office] is concerned about repatriation costs but as a sector, we have guaranteed that they won’t have to spend a penny on repatriation. There are protocols in place that mean [repatriation] will always be at our cost.”
Now all that is needed is for the FCDO to lift the advice, which was most recently updated in July, that British nationals should avoid all travel on ocean-going cruise ships.
This move is supported by Mr Stace: “The FCDO advice needs to be dropped. It’s out of date. It will take us, and the rest of the sector, three months to resume from the moment the starting gun is fired. We need that starting gun to be fired this year, not drifting into next year. ”
He warned that “if the advice is not removed soon, we will see a £10 billion industry with 88,000 jobs at risk going across the oceans to other destinations and not carrying on here.”
“Now we won’t do that because we are UK flagged, UK owned… but others will. And the government, if they are not careful, are pushing the sector to the point where they will take their ships and leave UK waters.”
Mr Stace admitted that it had been very hard on his staff, many of whom have been on an indefinite hiatus since the outbreak of coronavirus, and “cannot wait to get our vessels back out there.” He revealed: “There’s pent-up frustration – we’ve got the newest fleet in the world and it’s stuck in Tilbury.”
The boss of Saga noted that Covid-19 isn’t the first time that the industry has experienced choppy waters and believes cruise can weather the current storm. He told The Telegraph: “With vaccines in sight, bookings have doubled in recent weeks. We’ve never seen such high demand in our 24 years of cruising. Resilience is extraordinary among our customers.”
When Saga Cruises is finally given a date to set sail again, who would he most like to welcome onboard?
“The foreign secretary [Dominic Raab]. I think he has had the wrong impression of cruise,” said Mr Stace, without missing a beat.
“And as the foreign secretary – and as we are a seafaring nation entering into global Britain without the European Union – I think he should come on the high seas with us and see what flying the UK flag can do for UK plc, and what pleasure cruise can bring to the world.