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The Isle of Harris needs its own ferry, to make up for capacity shortfall caused by Covid-19 distancing precautions. That’s the call today (Tuesday 8 June) from Harris Transport Forum, which met last week to discuss a range of topics, including the continued challenge posed to the island’s recovery by issues with lifeline ferry services.

Members of the Forum agreed that CalMac’s MV Hebrides continues to perform excellent service on the two routes across the Little Minch to Harris and Uist, but reduced capacity brought about by physical distancing, including the closure of the mezzanine deck, is making it very difficult for visitors to travel to the island and islanders to visit the mainland. In a statement issued today, Harris Transport Forum said that they recognised the challenge of turning around vessels at ports with enhanced cleaning requirements.

They said that, during their meeting, it was noted that other transport modes are able to undertake cleaning during service. The Forum felt that there could be value in looking at the practices adopted by train and bus companies to see if these could be adopted by CalMac to allow the Mezzanine deck to be deployed again, while still operating in a way that ensures appropriate cleaning in line with the law.

The forum also pointed out that summer capacity on the Harris service has been severely constrained for many years.

This issue has been exacerbated by the failure to deliver the new ferry – still called Hull 802 – to the CalMac fleet, but even had this ferry entered service in 2019, government forecasting had suggested it would be at capacity by 2024.

They said: “Now that it looks increasingly unlikely the new ferry will be in place much before 2024, the forum noted that urgent planning is needed to provide increased capacity on the routes to Harris and Uist and the obvious answer is a dedicated vessel on the Tarbert service.”

Margaret MacKenzie, Chair of Harris Transport Forum said: “Harris and North Uist are the islands most affected by the failure to deliver new ferries into the CalMac fleet.

“Urgent action is needed and on behalf of the community in Harris the Forum want to see decisive action towards the provision of a dedicated ferry for each route across the Little Minch.

“This is the message that Harris would have given CMAL had we been asked before they went ahead and ordered another shared vessel and, had our voice been heard in 2014 we might have avoided the shameful situation that has seen hundreds of millions of pounds wasted.”

The forum’s call has been supported by North Uist and Benbecula ward member and Chair of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar’s transportation and infrastructure committee, Councillor Uisdean Robertson.

He said: “Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has presented a strategic action plan to Government that would address a number of the capacity challenges faced by communities from the Butt of Lewis to Arran.

“Providing dedicated ferries to Harris and North Uist would be a strong step forward in improving capacity and resilience to these islands. Both communities would be happy to work with Government and its agencies on moving forward this vision and would welcome meaningful engagement from Government on this request.”