Covid-19 outbreak hits Arctic expedition cruise

A large-scale Covid-19 outbreak has hit an Arctic expedition cruise ship operated by the first company to start up international cruises since the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic, highlighting the continuous challenge for the industry as infections flare up in Europe.

Hurtigruten said over the weekend that 36 staff from its MS Roald Amundsen had tested positive for coronavirus as had one passenger from the first of two affected cruises.

Almost 400 passengers from two cruises in July to the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard have had to go into quarantine, affecting 69 municipalities throughout Norway and possibly further afield, according to Norwegian health authorities.

The outbreak is an embarrassment for the cruise industry and especially Hurtigruten, which has stressed that its rules to guard against infection are stricter than those required by Norwegian and international authorities.

The Norwegian company — which started as a means of transporting goods and people along the long west coast of Norway — is a leader in expedition cruises in the Arctic and Antarctic and has touted the Roald Amundsen — the first cruise ship to have hybrid battery power — as highlighting a greener future for the industry. It announced plans last month to bring 14 of its 16 ships back to service in August and September including for several trips around the British Isles.

Experts say the current outbreak underlines the potential for health systems in the Arctic to be overwhelmed should an outbreak occur in the middle of a cruise. Several other cruises, including by other companies, are planned in the coming months for Svalbard, whose hospital has limited capacity for dealing with a large medical emergency.

“We have all warned about this for a very long time — should there be an accident or big health issue when a cruise ship is in Svalbard or another remote place, it would be very difficult for them to deal with it,” said one Norwegian Arctic expert. Hurtigruten has said that it has sufficient equipment onboard to keep passengers safe whatever happens.

The current outbreak was discovered only once the Hurtigruten ship had docked on Friday in Tromso, the largest town in northern Norway. Of 158 staff on board the Roald Amundsen, four who had been isolated due to other symptoms subsequently tested positive for coronavirus and were admitted to hospital in Tromso.

Further tests uncovered another 32 infections among employees, and the rest of the staff are now isolated on the ship. Nearly all of the infected staff are from the Philippines.

A cruise to Svalbard this weekend was cancelled but Hurtigruten has not yet said anything about future sailings, with the next scheduled trip of the Roald Amundsen due to take place next month.

Hurtigruten said it would review its infection guidelines. It has five ships currently sailing on its main route up Norway’s western coast from Bergen to the northern town of Kirkenes as well as two cruise ships off the Norwegian coast.