Today’s PAC hearing sees the bosses of the Steam Packet meeting the Public Accounts Committee. This summary should not be seen or read as a verbatim transcript of the hearing, which can be listened to in full here.
Settle in and let’s meet the players:
Chairman – Speaker Juan Watterson, Lawrie Hooper MHK (Vice-Chair), Jane Poole Wilson MLC, Clare Barber MHK, Julie Edge MHK and Chris Robertshaw MHK.
Chairman – Lars Ugland
Chief Executive – Mark Woodward
Watterson: How was the Steam Packet engaged once the decision was made that the borders needed to close?
Mark Woodward: I think engaged with is a loose term, I think what actually was it was a fairly chaotic situation.
We weren’t given any real guidance in the early days of the pandemic, we were able to use pre-existing plans which we dusted off and adapted and gave guidance to our crews and ships on what we thought they should be doing at that stage.
This included a lot of common sense methods such as distancing, increased hand washing etc.
Watterson: How did that early contact with gov work?
Woodward: It didn’t work.
I don’t blame the gov for that, it was a difficult time and because we’re a small organisation not a big gov we were able to be more nimble in our actions.
Early on the gov gave us little advice and we had to start asking more for info as the situation worsened.
We then reached out to get advice from the gov.
One of the problems throughout was that there wasn’t one point of contact, we were dealing with many different people at that stage.
The HR manager was driving from our side to get advice from the crew.
I was trying from the top, to steer it in the right direction. But it was pretty chaotic.
Juan Watterson: How were the gov’s expectations of you communicated?
I have provided you with a statement that can go public.
We started to get documents in March which included exemptions for isolation for staff
We had very little guidance about what we should be doing point,
Most communication was with the DoI. They tried to get us answers but it went through a long painful chain of command.
Sometimes we’d ask questions and it would take a long time to get answers.
There were very few meetings
There should have been single point of contact
Gov sealed itself off to make decisions around the table in isolation
Steam Packet should have had a seat at the table from the start.
I prepared papers, but understand they are paraphrased by the dept CEO’s.
I can’t recall dialogue directly with politicians.
Nick Black and Anne Reynolds were very helpful but they couldn’t give us the answers
Juan Watterson: You were required to do two sailings a day, this meant you had to mix crews yes?
Mark Woodward: The crew mix we have makes it difficult to split the crew
We suggested to COMEN that we shouldn’t stick to the standard timetable. It would drain resources and if we had a big outbreak then it could have led to all the services being lost.
The message we got back was – keep going as normal
Clare Barber: On the papers you prepared, what feedback were you given on that?
Maybe ask Nick Black. I sent to him but don’t know what he did with it
Watterson: Was that paper made available in your evidence bundle?
Woodward: I don’t think it is but I will make it available to you.
Julie Edge: Did you have any info from other maritime organisations?
We had a standard pandemic plan that we could dust off. Dr H said that our plan was too detailed and she aksed us to dumb them down.
They weren’t tailored to this pandemic, they can’t be.
We’ve done over 14,000 sailings. There isn’t one single case of staff to passenger transmission. We have a pretty damn good record.
Listening to the evidence given by Dr H, she sent a lot of time talking about taxis. If i was director of public health, I’d be given more advice to the steam packet than to taxi drivers
Watterson: On them risk assessment, everyone’s understanding has evolved, have you kept abreast of all developments?
Woodward: Our marine manager does that, he has tweaked things
Edge: Do you think the knowledge was a lack of understanding of your business and the type of risk assessment you would have and that’s why you were asked to dumb them down?
Woodward: It is very specialised work
We are well regulated in most regards. Risk assessments were aimed at keeping our crew and passengers safe.
Jane Poole-Wilson: In your conversations with Nick Black, were you discussing crewing patterns so CoMin understood the risk?
Woodward: If Nick Black was able to impart the discussions we had effectively to COMEN. They would have understood the risks posed.
JPW: Secondly, you said on the 19th March it was Dan Davies (CEO Department of Home Affairs) who said that the Gov was aware of the regs on crews, do you recall why that conversation came about?
Woodward: I think it came from an email I sent. Pretty sure I sent it to the cabinet office
Chris Robertshaw: Let’s go back to the start. Gov was understandably in a degree of shock. Did much change in the first lockdown? Did your relationship, engagement and communication with gov change much?
Woodward: I think in the first period there was little change. It was clunky to start with but we got into a pattern. There were a few bumps like taking the Ben out of service and it became live on board for a period. Throughout all of that we had a good exchange of information with DoI via Nick.
Robertshaw: Public Health didn’t become its only body until April,
Woodward: We had no evidence of it being that early. We had very little to do with them. I’d have to check my notes but I think the first meeting with Public Health was after the first lockdown, then it was November and the most recent meeting, which we are arguing about, which was not in January but on February 3.
Robertshaw: What issues did you have in, for example, access to PPE?
Woodward: We did have problems getting marks, particular early on. We did approach the cabinet office. We were advised initially that masks were for front line health workers. We sourced them ourselves. And had a pretty good supply.
You can’t legally enforce masks. There is no definitive position. We took the view that we should bring them in because the UK brought them in. It would have been weird to say to people – the bar is closing please put your mask on
Robertshaw How was the Manx Crew behaving during the first lockdown?
Isolating – going home after each shift
Hooper: Isolating is a very specific term, what exactly were they doing?
They were no different to any other Manx resident at the time. Essential shopping etc
Hooper: What checks were being done on your staff by you or the gov?
No checks by us as we had no authority or power to check on staff off duty. They weren’t checked on my government, no crew members have been visited.
Hooper: Did that surprise you?
It didn’t surprise me as they had an exemption from self isolating.
There were probably 15 – 20 iterations.
In very simple terms. The UK crew members, went to work, went home, isolated and then went to the UK
Once the lockdown ended. The Manx crews were free to do whatever the wanted to
Hooper: Did the gov check on the UK based crew when they were on island?
There were no checks whatsoever, there have never been any checks.
There have been some police involvements where members of the public had reported crea members as they thought they should be isolating. Didn’t go anywhere
Watterson: So at the end of the first lockdown there was no change and no conscious thought about what the crew should be doing?
Woodward: We approached giv and said ‘Hey, lockdown is coming to an end. What should we do with the UK crew?’
They said carry on with existing rules. Manx crew were exempt from self isolation
Hooper: So it was August before you were told about the close contact issue?
Woodward: Yes we were getting feedback saying people weren’t wearing masks when coming off the vessels or mixing and we got questions from MHKs, but our view at the time was that they were complying with the rules that were set down on them. They didn’t leave the Isle of Man, they went onto the Ben-my-Chree for a day’s work but they didn’t set foot in the UK.
We took other measures on board, we asked the crew not to chat to each other without standing two metres apart and asked them to eat in their cabins instead of in communal areas.
`We did what was reasonable and practicable’.
If gov wanted no risk. They should have stopped us sailing.
Barber: So the police were content that there had been no breach?
Woodward: Feedback we got was that no further action was required.
Edge: I asked in Keys about mask wearing and received a copy of a document about when they need to be worn, the UK had rules and when I pushed the Chief Minister he said it wasn’t the gov’s responsibility to check that the Steam Packet were following the rules. He later said he would check, are you aware of that taking place?
Woodward: We did laterally, probs August time last year, have IoM Ship registry surveyors to come and do round trips on the Ben. May well be that case that masks were added to the checklist.
Robertshaw: Just for clarity, you said UK based crews and others, so you were aware of the prevalence of cases in the UK, but do you have crew living further afield?
Woodward: We had some EU based crew so they had to do whatever the UK was required of them before coming here.
Robertshaw: It had to be a matter of trust, our legislation can’t extend to the UK and surely the gov would have to be aware of that?
Woodward: Yes, we have no power to force them to do it, we have to trust they followed UK gov regulations for the area they were living in.
Watterson: What was the point where the gov’s understanding was different to yours?
Woodward: The February media briefing
Watterson: How did you react?
Robertshaw: Sorry can we go back a bit, we’re approaching the Kent variant now. Even though the medics aren’t saying yes it’s much more transmissible but it was common knowledge it was spreading quickly. On 4th Dec – you approached the gov with concerns. Did you have any other discussions with them before then?
I had a discussion with DOI at the tail end of November.
Robertshaw: What was your concern?
Woodward: Our concern was simple, we felt an increasing likelihood of UK crew members testing positive. There was no testing on offer here. Our UK crew members were proactively testing in the UK. It was both good that they were choosing to test and making sure it was all good, but we did have concerns we could lose a critical number of crew members.
Our view was that vaccinations were very important. Had an initial word with DoI and got the magic four words – JCVI. They just said they were following the JCVI recommendations.
We then raised it in writing to the Chief Minister (Lars wrote it).
Early December was the time we started to push very hard. And we introduced our own voluntary testing on the ship. If positive we would take them off the ship ASAP and for a PCR test.
Watterson: December 4, your HR staff raised the issue of vaccines in an email.
I can’t put my hand on the actual email.
4th December was the time we pushed as we had a meeting with Alf Cannan on the 13th the Shareholder, and we asked him to push for vaccines for the crew too
Robertshaw: We were seeing a number of people trying to do the right thing, were you still seeing decisions being made by many people?
Woodward: It was less clunky but it still wasn’t quick enough. We didn’t have the opportunity to express ourselves to the people making the decisions.
They wouldn’t move from the JCVI despite the massive differences between here and the UK
I struggle with the logic of sticking to the JCVI. As we have one lifeline service.
Chief Minister said shop workers in strand street come across more people than steam packet workers.
Robertshaw: Chairman writes to the Chief Minister, what happened next?
Lars: He wanted to wait for a report to be made available. I asked to have a meeting with the Director of Public Health and the Chief Minister.
Woodward: On the 18th February he replied saying that he will help us to vaccinate crews. Took about two weeks to vaccinate everyone.
Hooper: When did you first raise the issue of testing with the gov?
Woodward: About the same time, but their strategy was the same as with vaccines, not doing it.
Hooper: The gap between first and second lockdown, that seems like a good time for the gov to get involved in risk assessments, can you explain how that worked?
Woodward: Well the basic timeline from July to December is that the Manx people were free and able to travel again as were our Manx based crew.
Yes there was some liaison with public health but not as much as you would think. There were no regular meetings.
There were new documents issued, which were also wrong.
We carried on as we had been until it went pear shaped in the Feb media briefing.
Hooper: During that six/seven month period did you ever make it clear to the gov that your Manx based crew weren’t isolating?
Woodward: My officers assure me that they were very clear that UK crews were isolating but Manx crews were not. I only got involved face to face after the February media briefing.
Everyone who says they were not aware, should have checked their emails.
Hooper: Were minutes taken at these meetings?
There weren’t minutes, we minute every meeting with the gov now.
Hooper: If during the meetings these issues had been made, wouldn’t you have expected to see them on the direction notices?
Woodward: Yes and there were many tweaks but most of them came from us raising issues.
I must make it clear that I didn’t sit and look at these legal documents, I was sure that we knew what we were doing and the gov knew what we were doing. When I delved into the details, I was astonished.
And I was even more astonished when Ministers at media briefings said the documents were clear.
JPW: Is it fair to say that some of the Manx based crew have second jobs on the island?
Woodward: Yes, one of the interactions came about because some crew members did have second jobs. There are a whole host of things that point very clearly to IoM gov understanding that our crews were not isolating.
I have to say, we have no wish to fall out with the gov on this. We chose to remain silent. We interjected twice – on isolation and when Dr Ewart gave evidence to your committee. All of the dates were wrong.
Robertshaw: What happened in these meetings as far as you understand it?
It’s in black in white.
We had a situation where we were looking again. We had to send Mananan away for work and the only way was to send Manx Captain with her.
He had to take his car, drive up to Heysham and come back from Heysham. We asked for specific exemption for him as he wouldn’t be in contact with people in the UK.
Anyway, the meeting was called specifically to address that. In the meantime we received an air and sea pathway document. Something for aircrews with a bit of a bolt on for sea crews.
It was specifically to ask for the Captain to return on the Ben without having to isolate away from his family.
Nick Black said it was very clear in that meeting that Manx based Steam Packet crews were not isolating.
Watterson: So it must’ve been a surprise at that briefing to hear the gov say they were isolating. Lars even wrote to them two days before saying crews were living as normal.
Woodward: That went to the Chief Minister and the Health Minister. It was only two days before but it had been conveyed many times before that.
Hooper: There was pushback from the crew at that time too.
Woodward: They were outraged
Hooper: Would your response have been the same if that had been said at any time in the past 12 months? Surely you would’ve said it was a crazy requirement and the gov has since said they don’t have to isolate. That present the idea to me that the gov has never said your crew had to isolate
Woodward: I agree
Robertshaw: How many crew would you have had left if that was the rules?
Robertshaw: Then we’d have starved to death
Woodward: I’ve had meetings where I have asked, after that briefing, if they really believed the crews had been isolated for a whole year without any concerns about their human rights or anything else.
‘It just beggars belief quite frankly’
It’s equally strange that key figures in gov have perpetuated that ludicrous situation. Do they truly believe that?
Hooper: Have they ever said what they expected isolation to mean for crews?
Hooper: So there were no modified rules for the crew?
Watterson: And it didn’t happen after the briefing either?
Woodward: No, after that briefing, our crew were outraged that their gov had essentially called them criminals.
We basically just had to carry on with the documents and the legislation as we understood it.
There is no such things as a corporate exemption
You couldn’t write this stuff frankly
Watterson – Well they didn’t
Woodward: No one came to know on the door to say ‘Oi you haven’t been doing it properly’
I didn’t blame the TNS team. Somebody somewhere was not taking ownership of this.
JPW: When you met with them, was there a recognition that Manx based crews didn’t receive modified direction notices?
Woodward: I think there was an understanding there was a lack of clarity and an awkward silence when I said did you really believe this.
JPW: You said about the impact on crews from the briefing, what has been the impact on crew members?
Woodward: It’s been horrible, imagine being a mother whose children say other children won’t play with them because they’re Steam Packet children and in one instance we even had a death threat.
There’s a whole range of things that went through society effectively criminalising our crews. That’s the thing that makes me most angry about all of this. I forgive the process failings as it was new to all of us.
But to take a non common sense position on this, at the highest levels of government. Quite frankly, astounds me.
Hooper: How did the gov go from their position of this is the only way to mitigate the risk to the position of allowing crews to mix provided they get tested? How did they go from you have to do this to saying ‘actually we were wrong’ and letting you do it differently?
Woodward: If you look at the latest documents issued. The risk assessment has much more meat on the bone. Doesn’t mean they’re better but they’re more substantial.
Crew have been jabbed and they are being tested. Real world mitigations that have materially improved position.
Mitigations were in place beforehand anyway as we were social distancing etc
Robertshaw: We’ve established that it was inhumane. What was the gov’s situation with the UK crews? And did you introduce laterflow testing to mitigate the UK crews?
Woodward: Lateral flow test introduced as we were seeing a higher case of UK crew members testing positive. We wanted to test them and isolate them as quickly as possible. It was designed to keep the operation running safely.
Edge: You said only four Manx based crew positive cases, when were they?
Woodward: We’ve had a few positive lateral flow tests and some false positives, when they got their PCR. The Manx crew cases were all in winter.
I’ve taken great issue with branding the cluster. The cluster should not be branded as a Steam Packet cluster. We suspect that there has been low level community transmission going on. We lifted the lockdown after 20 days instead of 28, it could’ve still be circulating.
The case was a UK worker who tested negative when he joined the ship, but was positive a week later.
With ‘All this peat fire, popping in’ Dr H was banging on about – it’s no surprise.
Feb outbreak could be a Manx based crew member passing it on to the UK crew member.
Watterson: Have you managed to work out how the spread happened?
Woodward: That’s impossible without detailed genomic testing. The crew members concerned were on different watches.
UK crew members did not develop symptoms.
Chief Minister said he wasn’t gonna point the finger, but…..
Watterson: Have you ever had an apology from the Chief Minister?
Lars: I did ask for an apology. But CM said he wanted to wait for the independent report.
Watterson: Are you happy with the independence of the report?
Woodward: I have been dealing with Steve Hands. He has been fair and very professional. Expect the Chief Min to get it by the end of the week.
Robertshaw: Anything else you’d like to add?
Woodward: No I think between this and our written evidence that is all you need.