Covid in Scotland: Scots facing rail and ferry misery

Scots are facing travel misery at the start of 2022 as firms axe services amid staff shortages driven by surging Covid infection rates.

Ferry company CalMac has warned passengers to expect extensive disruption after announcing timetable reductions. Bosses also said more than 100 employees had tested positive for coronavirus.

Meanwhile, rail operators are withdrawing hundreds of daily trains to improve reliability following weeks of short notice cancellations. At least eight UK firms have reduced frequencies on many routes or will do so in the coming days as they grapple with the effect of pandemic-related staff absences.

Pressures are being intensified by the Omicron variant, which has brought record-breaking increases in Covid infections and a jump in hospitalisations.

On Friday, Scotland recorded 11,962 new cases, as well as a further 13 deaths. Nearly 23% of tests returned as positive.

There were 859 people in hospital with recently confirmed coronavirus – an increase of 49 from the previous day’s total. That included 36 people in intensive care, which was up from 34.

The figures have alarmed medical experts. Professor James Chalmers, a consultant respiratory physician at Dundee University’s school of medicine, warned high case numbers would likely lead to a “substantial wave” of hospitalisations during the first two months of 2022.

READ MORE: More than 11,900 new cases and 13 deaths overnight

“We’re starting to see an increase in the number of people in hospital in Scotland,” he said. “We’re above 800 people in hospital at the moment with coronavirus; nationally, hospital admissions have risen by 61 per cent across the UK.

“So, there are, unfortunately, similarities with last January. “We are expecting, based on Government modelling, a substantial wave of hospitalisations through January and February.”

However, amid rapidly growing pressure on staffing levels, opposition parties have urged ministers in Edinburgh to bring Scotland’s self-isolation system into line with that in England, where people who test positive for Covid can leave quarantine after seven days if they test negative twice.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said previously that her government was “weighing the risks and benefits” of shortening the isolation period, while doctors stressed they supported a “cautious” approach to easing the rules.

Transport firms have warned that they are facing acute strains. 

HeraldScotland: There are growing fears over the Omicron variant's impact on hospitals.There are growing fears over the Omicron variant’s impact on hospitals.

CalMac, Scotland’s largest ferry company, said temporary changes would be made to several timetables from Monday after figures showed 93 crew and 18 port staff were unavailable because of Covid. This equates to an absence rate of 9% among vessel crews and 5% among port staff, and is in addition to a non-coronavirus absence rate of 6%.

Among routes set for a reduced timetable are Gourock-Dunoon and Gourock-Kilcreggan. Customers are being asked to check service status before commencing their journey to ports. However, they have been warned sailings may be cancelled right up to the point of departure.

In addition, ports at Stornoway, Ullapool, Uig, Lochmaddy, Lochboisdale, Castlebay, Armadale, Mallaig, Coll, Tiree, Ardrossan and Brodick will be operating reduced hours focused on sailing times.

Bosses said the changes, which will be in place until at least January 23 and then kept under weekly review, would allow them to direct resources towards maintaining “lifeline” services.

READ MORE: Hospitals to admit only ‘essential’ visitors over Omicron fears

Robbie Drummond, CalMac Managing Director, said: “Over the past week the number of Covidrelated absences amongst vessel crew has increased by 166%, from 35 on Christmas Eve to 93 today.

“Covid absences amongst port staff have risen by one third over the same period.

“The loss of such large numbers of staff makes it necessary for us to take immediate action to try and preserve essential services to communities.

“We fully appreciate the difficulties these changes will cause for some of our customers, and we apologise for any disruption that may result.

“However, because this situation is changing rapidly, we must protect core services, which is why we are now having to introduce this temporary timetable.”

Meanwhile, ScotRail and other UK train operators are introducing wide-ranging reductions.

HeraldScotland: Some train services were hit by an RMT strike on New Year's Eve.Some train services were hit by an RMT strike on New Year’s Eve.

ScotRail said it would bring in a temporary week-day timetable from Tuesday until January 28, adding that the Omicron variant had resulted in a “large number of absences”.

More than 150 daily services will be cut, including on routes such as Glasgow to Edinburgh via Airdrie/ Bathgate, Glasgow Central to Lanark, Edinburgh to North Berwick, and Edinburgh to Tweedbank.

CrossCountry has removed around 50 trains from its timetables between Mondays and Saturdays from December 27 until January 8. It was also hit by a 24-hour strike on New Year’s Eve, with train managers and senior conductors taking action in a row over the role of guards.

The company said passengers were “strongly advised to alter their plans and avoid travel”.

It is not operating any trains between Aberdeen and Edinburgh, Glasgow Central  and Edinburgh, Derby and Nottingham, Peterborough and Stansted, Cheltenham Spa and Cardiff Central, Newton Abbot and Paignton, and Plymouth and Penzance.

A “heavily reduced service” is in place between Edinburgh and Plymouth, Manchester Piccadilly and Bournemouth, and Birmingham New Street and Peterborough.

READ MORE: Almost three million ‘boosted by the bells’

A spokesman for industry body the Rail Delivery Group said operators were “working hard to provide a reliable train service” amid reduced staff numbers.

He added: “Some rail companies are introducing amended timetables owing to much less demand for train services.

“This could mean short-notice cancellations and changes for customers, so our advice to anyone travelling is to check online before they set out or  to sign up for automatic alerts from National Rail Alert Me.”

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