navigating through the pandemic
"Never before has the resilience of our business been tested so robustly.
However, being a sustainable business means being able to weather this, and future storms, and MSC Cruises has risen to the challenge."
Pierfrancesco Vago, Executive Chariman
As soon as we become aware of the coronavirus outbreak in China in January 2020, immediate action was taken to ensure the health and wellbeing of our guests and crew on our global fleet. As the pandemic spread, we continuously adjusted to restrictions set up by local port and health authorities meaning our itineraries changed and cruises were cancelled.
On 13th March 2020, CLIA announced an industry-wide decision, with all its members aligned on a halt to cruise operations. This led to numerous challenges for an industry which is ordinarily operational 365 days a year. The layup of entire fleets was completely unprecedented and constituted a significant logistical challenge. It also required finding immediate suitable berths or anchorages for the ships, and looking at options for long term layup, without knowing the extent of the crisis.
As the ships completed their final cruises, the Maritime Support Centre and crisis management teams worked tirelessly with ground operations team all over the world to support all our disembarking guests, some of whom required assistance with travel arrangements to get them home.
Our last ship to go into layup was MSC Magnifica, which was part way through its 117-day World Cruise when the pandemic hit. When the ship reached Australia the World Cruise was effectively cancelled. Some guests chose to disembark in Melbourne on 19th March 2020, and were provided with travel assistance. Other guests chose to remain on board travelling with the ship back to Europe. MSC Magnifica docked in Marseille, France on 24th April 2020, with no cases of COVID-19. The 1,770 guests were provided full assistance with transport and hotel stays, as needed, to support their journey home.
Crewing an empty ship
We needed to ensure that every ship remained in compliance with all the applicable safety and environmental regulations during layup, ensuring each ship maintained a minimum crew. Our safety and crisis management teams worked on revising existing protocols and developing new procedures to ensure safety and make sure our vessels’ operability was never compromised.
Despite the circumstances, each ship continues to require its crew to undergo regular safety drills and carry out the necessary maintenance, as well as implement the required COVID-related procedural changes for those returning to full operations.
The crew that remained on board were given guest cabins, with balconies as these became available.
We implemented a stringently enforced colour coded system of our ships, which. determined the specific procedures for social activities and the delivery of meals. For instance, a ship was coded as green if there had been no positive test results for at least 14 days, meaning the bars, gyms and pool could be open. On a ship deemed orange or red – with a recent or current positive test result within the previous fortnight – all socialising was halted, and crew were quarantined in their cabins when they were not working.
For our crew it was a difficult time. Some of them even tested positive and had to spend long time in self-isolation. To support them we brought in psychologists with expertise in crisis, disaster and trauma to provide specific support, including one-to-one psychological sessions as well as small group sessions, both via video calls.
Crewing an empty ship
Pausing operations and repatriating our crews
When operations were paused in mid-March 2020, over 19,000 crew members were employed on board. With only around 1,000 crew required for minimum safe manning across the fleet, we needed to get the remainder – of over 100 nationalities – safely home.
At this point, our ships were spread around the world in Europe, the USA, Caribbean, Brazil, UAE and South Africa. Repatriation required extensive collaboration across the business, with internal reassignment of resources to make this possible.
A dedicated team from corporate HR, crew development, corporate travel and the crew office worked around the clock to provide additional support to all employees affected. Although the number of global passenger flights was down 50% in March, more than half our crew were able to take commercial flights home. 42% of our crew were able to get back home on chartered aircraft and government assisted flights.
We even used our ships to move people: in May 2020, MSC Divina sailed from The Bahamas to Europe, carrying over 1,000 crew who could then continue their journey more easily from Italy, either overland or by air.
In some cases, we were attempting to repatriate our people to places with very restricted closed border access but we were successful in getting 62% of our crew repatriated by the end of March 2020, and 92% by the end of June 2020.
Pausing operations and repatriating our crews
Restarting with our new Health & Safety protocol
Historically, our existing health and safety measures have proved successful across the fleet, with no confirmed significant outbreaks of transmitted diseases on our ships in any previous year. With the arrival of COVID-19, we carried out a complete review and expansion of existing measures to support a return to operations.
The Health & Safety Protocol was designed by in-house specialists in medical services, public health and sanitation, hotel operations, crew management, engineering systems, information technology and logistics. We were assisted in this effort by an expert third party consultancy, and through consultation with our Blue Ribbon COVID-19 Expert Group.
The new protocol encompasses a definitive set of rules and procedures that exceed guidelines provided by regulatory and technical bodies, including: routine testing of guests and crew; the mandatory use of face masks in all public areas; social distancing; protected shore excursions; and processes for managing confirmed cases. It also requires an increase in medical staff onboard, with the addition of at least one HPCO (Health Protocol & Compliance Officer) on each ship.
Furthermore, with our COVID-19 insurance our guests have coverage before, during and after the cruise, including cancellation as well as medical and related transport expenses.
Thanks to all these measures we have create a safe bubble on board our ships, offering a safe and stress-free holidays for our guests and their families. With our return to sea we demonstrated that cruises can be one of the safest holidays options available.