Cruises have been hit hard by the pandemic, with most of them cancelled and crewmembers stranded at ports. Now, they have begun to look towards the future and take to sea again. Hygiene plans, Covid-19 testing and working closely with health professionals are just a few of the measures promised by some of the most popular cruise lines. However, cruises have been known to be breeding grounds for viruses even before Covid-19, so how safe will they really be?
And how closely are they working with insurers and assistance providers to make sure passengers will get the best care possible?
Close scrutiny of Covid safety measures onboard cruise ships
The cruise industry had come into criticism over its hygiene procedures way before Covid spread across the globe. With the cruise restart having endured a faltering start, and many cruise ships stuck in ports, the question arises: how can cruises ever come back again? Insurers and assistance companies on one side, and cruise lines on the other, have long butted heads over the safe transport of patients to hospitals, with cruise companies occasionally offloading patients in
ports that have unsuitable medical facilities due to time constraints on the cruise schedule. That, and the sparse medical equipment onboard ships, will have to change if cruises want even a chance of being able to take to sea again.
Cruise ships are already notorious breeding grounds for severe outbreaks of viruses such as norovirus. The US Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a study that showed that among 73,599,005 passengers on cruise
ships between 2008 and 2014, a total of 129,678 cases of acute gastroenteritis were reported during voyages. Now, with Covid-19, this breeding ground seems to be one of the most dangerous places to be during the pandemic.
“Much like the rest of the world and other travel and tourism sectors in particular, the cruise community is facing a challenge that is unprecedented in scale,” David Sanders, PR Manager at Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), commented. “Still, people love to cruise, and that is part of what makes the cruise industry so resilient in the face of adversity. We are confident that people will return to the seas, just as they will return to restaurants, bars, movie theatres and the like. We are confident that we will emerge from current circumstances stronger.”
CLIA has been working on establishing a hygiene standard that all members agree to implement. So far, CLIA ocean-going cruise line members have agreed to reach 100 per cent testing of passengers and crew, with a requirement for a negative test prior to boarding. This policy is mandatory for all CLIA ocean-going cruise line members for the initial
restart of passenger service globally and is applicable to vessels capable of carrying 250 or more persons.
However, plans for a safe future remain sparse. Instead of investing in better healthcare equipment onboard and hiring more healthcare workers, cruises have come up with ‘hygiene concepts’, which detail how regularly the ships will be cleaned: CLIA members have agreed to ‘regularly clean and sanitise the ship’s facilities, including cabins, restaurants, common areas such as pools and elevators, and high-touch areas’. At the end of a voyage and before a new one begins, ships are to be cleaned completely from top to bottom – a concept that one would hope was already in place before the pandemic.
Sanders explained: “While the protocols go even further, cruises already had some of the strictest and most rigorous hygiene and cleaning protocols of any sectors in the travel industry, and for that matter, many other industries.
“Prior to Covid, it was already the case that CLIA cruise lines travelling regularly on itineraries beyond the territorial waters of the coastal state meet or exceed the requirements of the ACEP Health Care Guidelines for Cruise Ship Medical Facilities. Cruise ships must have an examination room, intensive care room, and equipment for processing labs and monitoring vital signs, and patients requiring more comprehensive treatment are typically referred to a shore side facility.”
Cruise ships can be incubators for disease
At ITIC Connected in 2020, Dr Bruno Sicard of MedSSIS said infectious diseases were already an important issue for cruise lines due to the confined environments of cruise ships, the remote areas visited, and the fact that onboard medical
care is never as good as on land, so passengers expect to be evacuated for better medical care. Going forward, he
said that better communication is needed between crews and assistance providers, and that agility, flexibility and transparent processes need to be developed to address current and future issues.
Sanders says that CLIA members are communicating with health officials at destination ports: “Cruise lines are
working with ports and destinations so that future cruise itineraries are designed with public health considerations and
pre-arranged contingency plans as a top priority.”
A spokesperson at Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) told ITIJ about the Healthy Sail Panel the company established in collaboration with Royal Caribbean Group to help inform the cruise industry in the development of new and enhanced cruise health and safety standards in response to the global pandemic. Generally, they seem to include the above-mentioned cleaning procedures: “Globally recognised medical, scientific and hospitality experts on the panel have put their heads together on a raft of advanced measures, which have been included in our Sail Safe programme,” said a spokesperson. “These include an allnew air filtration system, enhanced screening protocols, advanced medical resources plus all areas will be cleaned, sanitised and disinfected at an increased frequency.”
The spokesperson added that onboard medical centres will be fully equipped with the latest testing kits and medical supplies. “We are also increasing our medical team fleetwide. Additionally, each ship has dedicated isolation accommodations should the need arise.”
Testing kits and medical supplies include on-site rapid diagnostic testing for Covid-19, an increased inventory of medical oxygen equipment, vaccinations, medication to treat Covid-19 and enhanced health and safety trainings. “We will begin to introduce a newly created onboard position of Public Health Officer, responsible for the oversight of all sanitation and outbreak prevention initiatives. Additionally, they will monitor the day-to-day cleanliness of all public areas and accommodations,” the spokesperson said.
Assistance companies offering support to cruise lines
Elena Donina Glukhman, Project Manager at AP Companies Global Solutions, commented: “We support cruise lines providing PCR testing for crewmembers around the world, we also co-ordinate Covid-19 hospitalisations in different ports and once the operations restart we will be happy to offer the full range of Covid-related services to our clients. “I think the cruise industry is very resilient and very creative at the same time, a huge number of talented and experienced people are working on creating efficient response plans and preparing cruising to become the safest way of travelling. No other industry has invested so much time and effort in introducing such a huge amount of measures along with detailed action plans in order to get back to operate and make it in the safest possible way. Due to these protocols, cruising now is a totally new and different experience.”
She explains that the plans of which she is aware include regular testing, social distancing measures, wearing masks, and contact tracing protocols. Additionally, onboard medical facilities have been improved and modified in order to provide critical care capacity for Covid-19 cases and to separate potentially infectious persons from those with noninfectious diseases. The amount of medical staff onboard has been increased, and there are identified partners and facilities that would be able to co-ordinate the transfer of a Covid-positive case in each port.
The measures taken by cruise lines are key to boosting health and safety measures onboard cruise ships to such an extent that people are happy to book them again. Risk perception and reality can be worlds apart when it comes to illness onboard cruise ships, and in order to restart the lucrative cruise sector, companies must be seen to be protecting their customers, and having in place the preparations and equipment needed to cope with an outbreak should one occur.
No-one wants a repeat of 2020, which saw thousands of cruise passengers stuck onboard ships with high Covid infection rates, not allowed to disembark. ■