Western Isles Council today formally rejected the proposals from Transport Scotland and their contractor Calmac to further reduce the limited winter timetable currently in place, and delay a summer timetable indefinitely.

The council said the Scottish Government agency Transport Scotland had been seeking a reduction in service on the "spurious" grounds that it would reduce unnecessary interactions between customers and crew, and subsequently lower the risk of Covid-19 community transmission.

However, it warned that reducing the service could have a "calamitous impact" - threatening the prosperity of the seafood industry as well as failing to provide an adequate service for passengers.

A statement from the council confirmed that key sectors are "anxiously looking" to the Scottish Government for more clarity on the roadmap towards easing of restrictions. 

READ MORE: CalMac examines cuts to journeys after coming under fire for running a full service of empty ferries

Yesterday Nicola Sturgeon outlined plans for Scotland's provisional exit from lockdown, indicating more children could go back to the classroom from March 15, the ban on communal worship could be lifted – possibly in time for Easter and Passover - and the country will move back to the levels system of coronavirus restrictions from April 26, with all council areas moving to Level 3.

Western Isles Council added that for many island communities, the plans to reduce CalMac's service are insult to injury - since the ferry service reliability is "so poor" that interaction between passengers and crews is "already much reduced as ferry services are so disrupted by weather and technical failures across the ageing fleet that Government has placed at Calmac’s disposal."

Chair of Transportation Cllr Uisdean Robertson said: “This request to further reduce ferry services will have a calamitous impact on our seafood industry which already has enough to contend with because of Brexit and creates wholly avoidable uncertainty for our tourism industry which has already effectively endured three winters in business terms and needs some form of summer season in 2021 if we are to see any recovery from the pandemic. 

"I am calling on the Islands Minister to step in and abort this unnecessary and ill thought plan and to recognise that the unreliability of the Calmac fleet cannot be swept under the carpet any longer. 

"What is needed is decisive action to provide new tonnage to ease the strain on the fleet. I wrote to Mr Wheelhouse last week setting out actions that can be taken to relieve pressure on the fleet in the short to medium term including the opportunity of a new build Catamaran for Mull and chartering Pentalina and a freight ferry for Stornoway.

He added: "Responsibility for the debacle of our ferry fleet sits with Scottish Ministers and I am calling on them to show leadership on this issue."

The council has taken a formal position against the proposal from Scottish Ministers to further reduce Western Isles ferry services, outline its requirements and demands going forward.

The statement reads: "There requires to be further formal engagement with, at a minimum, the Comhairle’s political leadership prior to any changes being considered by Transport Scotland.

"Further information is needed as to the proposed length of the reduction period and when it would commence.

"The consultation period is extremely short, for reasons which are not apparent. It cannot reasonably be said that there is an urgent need to reduce services on account of Covid issues when Scotland has been in Levels 3 or 4 since December 2020.

"With the imminent return to the summer timetable, a reduction in COVID cases, the progress of the vaccination programme and the possible return of the Western Isles to Level 3 in early course, this seems to be a strange time to be discussing the reduction of services.

"A reduced frequency will mean more traffic on individual sailing increasing the proximity of customers one to each other and to crew members.

"Will the operator and Transport Scotland confirm that a full summer timetable can be implemented with adequate crew in place overnight when travel restrictions ease.

The Comhairle suggested that rather than reducing services, Transport Scotland should instruct CalMac to find greater flexibility within its fleet, assisting the company whenever possible through the purchase or leasing of other vessels, some of which are available elsewhere in Scotland.

READ MORE:'An outrage' - £25m CalMac ferry maintenance contract awarded to English shipbuilder over Scots firm Dales Marine 

However, it follows the ferry operator CalMac coming under fire earlier this month for wasting fuel and damaging the environment by running a full service of empty ferries during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The transport staff union TSSA said ScotRail and other rail services have by contrast been running a reduced timetable for months, reflecting the drop in demand and saving taxpayers money.

TSSA general secretary Manuel Cortes said, "ScotRail is currently running 65% of services in light of the reduced passenger demand due to the pandemic. Yet CalMac continues to run a full service, even though this means running empty ferries.

"This is an unforgiveable waste of taxpayers money, to say nothing of the environmental impact."

"It beggars belief that a company that claims to be too hard up to give their staff a proper payrise is willfully wasting money like this. They might as well be burning fivers in the car park!"

CalMac said it was operating lifeline services as specified by the Scottish Government agency Transport Scotland and were ready to deliver any timetable changes as required.

A Transport Scotland spokesman said: “We have been working with CalMac throughout all phases of lockdown to continuously review whether services are running at the appropriate levels, in light of the current low levels of demand and ongoing travel restrictions.

“There are no plans to reduce services from current levels unless communities want us to and we will be engaging with local authorities, Regional Transport Partnerships and tourism bodies to discuss their feedback later this week.”

Robert Morrison, Operations Director for CalMac, said: "Transport Scotland have asked CalMac to seek views on potential service reductions, based on current demand and in the context of ongoing travel restrictions.

"The information and feedback received will be shared with Transport Scotland, and this will in turn support any decisions they make around changes to our timetabled services."