SCOTTISH Government-owned ferry operator CalMac has slashed the number of ferry sailings by over half while announcing a delay to proposed price rises amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Meanwhile Highlands and Islands Airports (HIAL) has said it will stop all but essential flights from this Sunday due to coronavirus restrictions.

The publicly-owned ferry company confirmed it will cut back services on its Clyde and Hebridean ferry services (CHFS) as passenger numbers dropped 85% in recent days.

Aimed at supporting essential traffic to and from the islands, the new schedule will come into effect this week, dropping sailings by 61%.

Services on Scotland’s busiest ferry crossing - Ardrossan to Arran - has been cut by ten a day each way to four.

CalMac said that its Essential Lifeline Timetable will run for an initial three-week period will be subject to continual review in what it called “a rapidly changing environment”.

It comes as CalMac have been overwhelmed by more than 5000 calls in a single day in relation to trip cancellations.

HeraldScotland:

Ministers have already announced that ferry travel across Scotland must be for essential travel only. Ferries are now only for those who live on islands, who have an essential need to travel to and from the mainland, and for essential supplies or business.

Islands minister Paul Wheelhouse said: “Supply chains to and from our island communities are vitally important so we must continue to support them during this outbreak of coronavirus.

“With that in mind, I am freezing fares on the CHFS network until we are through this challenge.

“This will ensure businesses and hauliers are not placed under any further financial pressure.

“It also means islanders who must travel for work or medical reasons do not face additional costs.”

He added: “It remains the case that people need to avoid all but essential travel by ferry to and from Scotland’s remote and island communities but this fare freeze will help those that have to make journeys at this difficult time.”

CalMac managing director Robbie Drummond believes the new timetable, in effect from Friday, will better use available crews.

He said: “It is important that we continue to provide ferries that can take vital goods and services to our island communities and transport people who have essential travel needs.

“Community groups and key hauliers have been consulted to ensure that the supply chains can be maintained.”

HIAL said it would close all its airports to scheduled flights and general aviation from Sunday

Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross MP Jamie Stone said the move by Highlands and Islands Airports (Hial)was a “responsible action”.

But he added that he will be seeking assurances over the types of medical cases that the emergency flights will cover.

“This is a responsible action to take,” he said. “I support HIAL’s decision. It underlines how serious the situation is and the fact that Highlands’ airports will still be available for serious medical cases is very good.

“I shall be seeking assurance that these emergency flights will cover maternity services in the Far North.”

Hial said services which will be maintained will include NHS passenger transfer, the Royal Mail and the oil and gas industry.

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The moves are part of wider efforts to curtail the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.

HIAL has been liaising with the Scottish Government and its aviation partners to “ensure its airports can continue their unique role in providing lifeline services for our communities, now and into the future”.

HIAL added: “It is important HIAL does all it can to limit the spread of infection, protect the health and wellbeing of our staff and have the necessary resilience in place to maintain its ability to service essential and emergency flights.

"In order to maintain these vital air links, we have made the difficult, but necessary, decision to close all our airports to scheduled flights and routine general aviation traffic with effect from Sunday, March 29, 2020.”

Contingency measures would be put in place, it said, to ensure essential flights with the minimum of staffing levels.