Jan Etherington, The Daily Telegraph, April 1, 2013
Alarm bells began ringing about a week before my cruise to view the Northern Lights was due to depart last month. A letter arrived from the company advising me that due to a norovirus (''winter vomiting bug’’) outbreak on the previous cruise, our check-in time would be delayed by one hour – to allow for thorough cleaning before boarding.
It didn’t seem long enough. And so it proved. As we headed up the east coast towards Norway, we were a closed community, a perfect breeding ground, and norovirus took hold. Before we reached our first port of call, there were stewards in masks, gloves and aprons scurrying about the decks with sacks of contaminated clothing and crockery.
Frantic and repeated messages in the ship’s daily newsletter, and from the Captain himself over the PA system, urged frequent handwashing and sanitiser use. The number of cases continued to rise. Anyone who experienced symptoms – sickness and diarrhoea – was told to call the medical centre immediately. They were confined to their cabin for at least 48 hours.
The sauna, Jacuzzi, casino and the public lavatories were closed. The self-service buffet was no more. Instead, stewards served passengers individually. Older passengers were frightened – and with reason. The information available stated, rather blithely, that norovirus meant just a day or two’s inconvenience. But many were very sick for five days or more. At its height, I would guess that half the ship’s 900 passengers were affected.
My husband and I stayed healthy. We were members of ''The Few’’ and resentment showed when sick passengers heard our tales of dog sledding and trips to see the Lights. So we learnt to keep quiet, because the only topics on board were symptoms and compensation. The mood was understandably sombre.
Norovirus is the second most common virus after the common cold and the cruise industry has been blighted by it, with ruined holidays, angry passengers and payouts. Is the industry taking it seriously enough? Our ship was destined for the Med the day after we disembarked from our 14-day voyage. That trip was delayed by just one day for another deep clean. Was that long enough?
So much depends on how passengers and crew protect themselves on board, and I can’t fault our crew. But I do believe this ship was sent out too soon. If passengers are confined for 48 hours, then shouldn’t the ship be in dock for at least two days before returning to service?
Cruise companies must start showing this little bug some respect – not least to safeguard their business. Cruising is a wonderful way to holiday and one growing in popularity; but no one would voluntarily board a plague ship, would they?
Protect yourself from norovirus on board
◘ If you are not feeling well or have a vulnerable immune system, don’t go on a cruise. You may infect yourself and others.
◘ Be honest. Some passengers fail to report their symptoms because they don’t want to be quarantined and miss trips and sights, and so the virus spreads. Stay in your cabin and call the medical centre.
◘ Hand sanitisers help but nothing beats thoroughly washing your hands in hot soapy water for a minimum of 20 seconds, as often as you can, but always after using the lavatory.
◘ The virus can be transmitted by touching fixtures used by an infected person. Don’t touch lift buttons, chair arms, hand rails, pens. Open doors with a tissue.
◘ Avoid large gatherings on board if an outbreak is underway.
◘ Drink plenty of water. If the self -service buffet is operating, use a wipe to hold the tongs/cutlery.
◘ Avoid launderettes on board.
◘ Avoid public lavatories. Your cabin is only a moment away.
◘ Go on deck as often as you can.
◘ Be a tell-tale. If you see someone ignore the hand sanitiser, tell a member of staff.