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Cruise Ships Hosting 5,000 COP 26 Staff Could Trigger Wave of Local COVID Infections, Officials Warn

Public health experts are warning that two huge cruise ships intended to house up to 5,000 staff during the United Nations climate conference, COP 26, could cause COVID-19 outbreaks and set off a new wave of infections in the host city, Glasgow.

A public health advisor to the Scottish government, Devi Sridhar, “previously called cruise ships floating ‘germ factories’ and urged holiday-makers to avoid them,” Glasgow Live reports. “I would say, as a public health person, don’t go on a cruise ship ever,” Sridhar told an audience at the Edinburgh International Book Festival over the summer. “I just think cruise ships and infectious diseases are, they’re not meant to go together.”

But with an estimated 25,000 participants and staff onsite for the high-stakes conference, “COP 26 organizers have sourced two ships from an Estonian operator to provide accommodation for ‘security and production staff’ amid a shortage of hotel rooms and soaring room rates in Glasgow,” Glasgow Live says.

The MS Romantika, with capacity for 2,500 people, is already in its berth on the River Clyde, the local news report states. The MS Silja Europa, with space for 3,123, will follow. Staff will take shuttle buses between the ships and the conference site while the two-week event is under way.

“We already saw for the G7 Summit in Cornwall the dramatic rise is cases following the meeting,” said Dr. Jeremy Rossman, an honourary senior lecturer in virology at the University of Kent. “It is very possible something similar could occur with the COP 26 meeting unless significant precautions are taken, which, given the easing of restrictions in Scotland, appears unlikely.”

Rossman warned that accommodating that many people on cruise ships will increase the risk. 

“As with any indoor environment, measures can be taken to minimize virus transmission. However, the close spaces of a cruise ship, combined with many shared spaces and support staff, creates a high risk of virus transmission,” he added. “Even with precautions taken on cruise ships, we have still seen outbreaks occur. As the guests on the ships will be moving back and forth from the city and meeting site, the risks of virus transmission further increase.”

“Cruise ships are likely places with high transmission of COVID because of enclosed spaces, especially if there is poor ventilation where people come into close contact,” said University of Edinburgh epidemiology professor Dr. Rowland Kao. “Given how transmissible the Delta variant is, even to vaccinated individuals there will be risks. So lots of testing is going to be important.”

But those practicalities may not be top of mind for the UK politicians responsible for hosting COP 26. “Insisting on COP in November is all about ‘global Britain’ post-Brexit, a top player on the world scene,” and “the glorious finish to UK’s G7 presidency,” muttered one veteran COP watcher in an email yesterday. “If COP 26 flops, and 1.5°C is not kept alive, well, we did our best! So what’s a few thousand COVID attacks or fatalities? [The reaction will be that] maybe they didn’t wash hands, wear masks.”

Stirling University public health specialist Prof. Andrew Watterson said Glasgow residents are entitled to “much more information” on the risk and measures to control it.

“If the cruise ship occupants come from all over the world, and if there are not rigorous requirements on vaccination and testing along with onboard COVID mitigation measures, the cruise ships could prove to be sources of significant virus transmission in the city,” he said. “Being in the one port for several days with ship occupants possibly moving around the central belt and beyond may present unusual COVID control challenges.”

For months, key negotiators involved with the COP have been warning about poor communication from the UK Presidency on pandemic control measures, shifting rules on the quarantine restrictions international delegates can expect to face, and a growing concern that delegates from developing countries on the front lines of both the pandemic and the climate emergency will be excluded from a crucial set of negotiations. In early September, Climate Action Network-International called for COP 26 to be postponed because of the UK government’s failure to ensure pandemic safety, particularly for delegates from the Global South.