Update: The figures in this story have been revised after Southampton City Council supplied data for a crucial missing week after I had published its response to a Freedom of Information request
MSC Cruises declared 54 positive Covid cases to Southampton port officials on three consecutive sailings last month, a Freedom of Information inquiry has revealed.
A total of 33 crew and 21 passengers were reported on MSC Virtuosa when it docked in the port on September 4, 11 and 14. A health officer boarded the ship after the first of these arrivals following concerns raised by passengers.
A total of 12,967 people were on the three cruises – 9,168 guests and 3,799 crew.
However, passenger groups have said the official numbers drastically understate the actual level of infection on the ship at the time, with claims of possible cases running to 100 or above. Regional press reports have linked at least one Covid-related death to the cruise, which also called at Portland, Liverpool and Greenock.
Figures supplied by Southampton City Council in response to an FOI request by this blog (see full table below) show that the first eight sailings by MSC Virtuosa from May 20 reported no positive cases at all, with passenger numbers ranging from 568 on the June 12 cruise to 1,072 when government restrictions on capacity were eased.
In the 16 weeks before August 21, there were only eight passengers and three crew that were reported as Covid cases, out of a grand total of nearly 46,000 people – a rate of 0.024 per cent, or one in 4,179 people.
The busiest cruise, on August 21, with 5,100 people on board (3,842 passengers and 1,258 crew), declared four cases (three guests and one crew member).
Following the port health officer’s visit on September 4, MSC Cruises agreed to tighten up measures on tests, facial masks and social distancing and return the buffet to one staffed by crew, rather than self-service. MSC Virtuosa has now finished its season of British itineraries.
The Swiss-based line has claimed a great success in the safe return of cruising, having carried more than 60,000 passengers on one ship alone – MSC Grandiosa – in Italy since August 2020, including many months before vaccinations were widely available. Ten ships in the fleet are now back in service.
In a statement supplied to this blog on September 9, an MSC spokesperson said: ‘In connection with the current rise of Covid-19 cases in the UK, MSC Cruises has recently further strengthened its Health & Safety Protocol on board MSC Virtuosa during her UK sailings to manage the prevailing Covid-19 risks.
‘This has included additional testing of both vaccinated and unvaccinated guests and crew, which has allowed us to identify suspect Covid-19 cases at the terminal during the pre-embarkation process and on board the ship. All have been identified and effectively managed in line with the protocol and in cooperation with relevant UK health authorities.
‘This is yet another example of our protocol doing exactly what it was designed to do. The MSC Cruises Health & Safety Protocol is designed to keep our guests, crew and the communities our vessels call at safe, and its measures are sufficiently robust in the face of the current circumstances.’
The following day, Southampton City Council told me: ‘Southampton Port Health Services has been involved with the MSC Virtuosa since she resumed cruising.
‘Any ship arriving into a Port Health Authority area is required to submit a Maritime Declaration of Health 12 hours in advance of arrival if there is any passenger or crew on board reporting symptoms of an infectious disease. MSC Virtuosa reported confirmed cases of Covid-19 on board as part of this declaration.
‘As a result, a Port Health Officer visited the vessel on September 4 and advised strengthening their controls on board. The ship cooperated fully, immediately implementing those suggested controls and was allowed to continue on its next planned cruise.
‘Southampton Port Health and Public Health England work very hard to assist in protecting public health both on board vessels and onwards into the local community.’
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