FERRY users have been urged to consider whether they need to use lifeline services after CalMac warned of further disruptions to lifeline ferry services with more than one in five staff now self-isolating due to Covid.

Mairi Gougeon, the rural affairs and islands cabinet secretary gave the 'essential travel only' advice after the state-controlled ferry operator warned that Covid cases were at "more than twice" the numbers who were absent due to virus on Hogmanay.

That led to an “essential services” ferry timetable which has saw cuts to ten of CalMac’s 26 routes including introducing a single vessel rather than the double ferry timetable for the service to and from Brodick on Arran - one of Scotland's busiest routes.

CalMac warned that the increasing number of crew on vessels and staff in ports either testing positive, self-isolating or waiting for Covid test results has meant that the ferry operator is "unable to operate to full capacity at the current time".

But ferry users were left confused by the cabinet secretary's comments as it did not appear to be the advice given by the ferry operator.

One users group official said: " That isn't the advice as far as I am aware. And it is certainly not my understanding of the situation."

READ MORE: Ferry chaos prompts fears for lifeline supplies as Arran is left with only enough fuel for nine cars

Sam Bourne, chairman of the Arran Ferry Action Group said: "Mairi Gougeon does appear to have created an additional piece of travel advice with the request to ‘consider whether your ferry trip is essential’. 

"This is not our understanding of the current CalMac travel advice. Or Scotrail, for example. 

"Many islanders currently only make what are, to all intents, ‘essential journeys’ precisely because of the current sailing-by-sailing travel difficulties, and the risk of not being able to travel, or getting stranded on the mainland.   If the advice is indeed now ‘essential ferry travel only’, what additional support would be made available to hospitality businesses and others affected, who are already 'scunnered by the endless disruption', as highlighted by Jamie Greene MSP."

The cabinet secretary gave the advice as West Scotland MSP Katy Clark asked what the Scottish Government was doing to support Arran in the wake of ferry cancellations caused by staff absences due to Covid, and poor weather.

The Herald on Sunday revealed that the 'ferry chaos' had raised concerns about shortages of vital supplies through a raft of service restrictions which saw Arran almost run out of fuel.

Issues with sailing cancellations and fuel storage issues meant last Wednesday there was only 500 litres of fuel left on Arran for visitors and residents - only enough to fill nine family cars.

Ms Gougeon said: "I just want to say that of course we are aware of the impact of the pandemic and Brexit on Arran and other island communities.

"And I know how frustrating that is when at short notice ferry services are affected.

HeraldScotland:

"I think we can't lose sight of the fact, or lose sight of why these services are lifeline ones because obviously children need them to get to school and residents need them to access services on the mainland. Public services and local businesses need them to be able to get their workers back and forth.

"And we just wanted to use this opportunity to emphasise that we need everyone to consider carefully the current advice, which is to stay at home as much as possible and whether the ferry trip is essential because every time someone takes the virus on board a ferry it puts the health of crews at risk, which then puts the service at risk and that has significant wider impacts, some of which we've seen recently.

"And we all need to work together in the short term to minimise the impact of the variant and try to sustain these lifeline services for island communities."

The cabinet secretary was also unable to commit to meet passenger groups to "discuss the challenges" after being invited by Ms Clark.

She said: "I mean, I'm sure the member will be aware that a lot of these matters in particular in relation to ferries, are the responsibility of the transport minister but I do I try and engage as much as I possibly can personally with my responsibilities and my overall responsibilities for the islands."

CalMac said on Wednesday that the  latest figures show that 151 crew and 35 port staff are currently unavailable because of Covid. This equated to a Covid absence rate of 20.3% amongst all staff and is in addition to a non-coronavirus absence rate of 6%.

As CalMac brought in its "essential services" ferry timetable at Hogmanay, it said that 93 crew and 18 port staff were absent – nine per cent of crews and five per cent of port staff, on top of a non-coronavirus absence rate of 6 per cent.

Last week the overhaul of one ferry was delayed till Friday as concerns over supplies surfaced on Arran which has been hit with a series of service cancellations.

Friday saw another raft of sailings go after another Covid outbreak left the island with no dedicated service for much of the day.

HeraldScotland:

Five food lorries, stranded for up to two days managed to leave Arran last Wednesday as other visitors spoke of being unable to leave after services on the island came to a standstill the previous weekend.

Questions about the resilience of CalMac's ageing ferry fleet were heightened after curbs to services due to high winds led to 11 lifeline CalMac ferry routes suffering suspensions on Thursday, last week.

Arran ferry users questioned why the Gourock 'port of refuge' was not used as their services were suspended, despite £2.5m being spent on it to cut cancellations in bad weather.