CROSS-SOLENT ferry operators have outlined their reasons for passengers having to leave their vehicles during crossings — amid concern that ferries could become 'superspreaders' of Covid.

A temporary waiver granted by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) is still in place, which allows ferry operators discretion to run sailings in which all passengers can stay in their vehicles.

Both Wightlink and Red Funnel say due to the volume of vehicles and freight they carry, this is no longer possible, and their Covid-secure status means travel in the lounges is safe.

Vulnerable passengers can request, in advance, a dispensation.

West Wight journalist and campaigner Jonathan Young believes having everyone together in the ferry lounges means the crossings have the potential to become superspreader events — and he has been emailing MP Bob Seely to ask for support in asking the ferry companies to allow people to remain in their vehicles.

Jonathan said: "I imagine there will be many hundreds of visitors coming over on those crossings in the run-up to Christmas and going on to multi-generational house parties.

"I fully understand what SAGE's Prof Andrew Hayward meant when he spoke of a 'recipe for regret'.

"This year there will be the added pressure of visitors attracted by our Tier One status — almost all from parts of the country with higher infection rates than ours — together with the telescoping of the pre-Christmas part of the national relaxation into December 23 and 24.

"To put it bluntly, many of these crossings could easily assume the characteristics of a superspreader event.

"For me the bottom line is this. If the operators need to sacrifice operational efficiency and commercial opportunities for the sake of public safety, then they must be forcefully encouraged to do so."

Read more: Caution urged amid 'booze cruise' jokes

What did Red Funnel say?

A spokesperson for Red Funnel said: “The ‘stay in vehicle’ crossing service was temporarily implemented as an exceptional measure during lockdown.

"We worked with the MCA to agree complex mitigating actions that permitted us to run some crossings on which all passengers had to remain in their vehicles.

“However, it is no longer possible for Red Funnel to operate in this manner due to the volume of vehicles and freight we are obliged to carry throughout the day to ensure an adequate supply of crossings to meet the constant flow of demand.

"Particularly that from Islanders travelling to the mainland for work or other reasons, and the steady two-way stream of freight traffic.

"In alignment with the government’s end to shielding recommendations, Red Funnel returned to operating as normal.

“It should be noted that we cannot allow passengers to stay in their vehicles when we have hazardous goods on board. This mitigation has been approved by the MCA to ensure the safety of passengers.

“Running sailings whereby all passengers must remain in their vehicles significantly limits the total vehicles we can carry.

"Given current levels of demand, especially freight, operating in this format would significantly inconvenience passengers due to crossings filling up and selling out quickly.

"This would also cause significant disruption to supply chains. While it’s tempting to suggest we ran these crossings before, so we ought to run them again, the reality is that total travel demand during the lockdown versus demand today is very different, making for a far from like-for-like comparison."

Red Funnel also said unheated car decks would make for an 'unpleasant' crossing during the winter months.

They emphasised how clean and Covid-secure the ferries are.

Red Funnel is also running at just 39 per cent of normal capacity to permit greater social distancing – to a maximum of 350 passengers instead of the usual 892.

Red Jets are currently capped at 148 passengers, which is 52 per cent of normal capacity.

Read more: Don't come to Tier One Isle of Wight if you don't need to

What did Wightlink say?

A spokesperson for Wightlink said: "Safety is our first priority. Wightlink’s policy is that drivers and passengers leave their vehicles after embarking ferries and make the crossing in the lounges or outside decks. These are the safest places for passengers to travel and meet all the regulatory standards.

"Wightlink previously made an agreement with the MCA to allow people to stay in their cars on a temporary basis, and on account of very low passenger numbers at the beginning of the pandemic.

"As many more people are now travelling, customer safety and regulations mean that passengers must leave their vehicles after embarkation, and cross the Solent in the large passenger lounges.

"All Wightlink’s ships are spacious with plenty of room for everyone to find seats and respect social distancing."

UPDATE: Statement from Island MP Bob Seely.

“As far as I am aware there is no evidence to suggest that ferries are in any way ‘super-spreaders’. We did not see a significant rise in infection rates following the first lockdown when visitor numbers were up, so this may be perception rather than reality.

“I would be very interested to hear any evidence to the contrary.

“The ferry companies have worked closely with each other, the IW Council, Public Health England, the IW Transport Infrastructure Board, Visit IW and others to ensure Islanders and visitors are kept safe and I thank them for that.

“With regard to stay-in-car sailings, my understanding is that this was possible when vehicle numbers on ferries was very low but would not be deemed safe on busier crossings. As with everything during this pandemic, it’s about weighing up the risks and striking a balance.

“We must also remember that while the Island is fortunate enough to be one of only three areas in the country in Tier One with fewer restrictions on movement, a large proportion of the country is operating under much tighter restrictions. Those in Tier Three, for example, are advised to avoid travel outside of their area.”