14 Dec 2012

Norovirus ‘plague ship’ docks in Southampton

After 10 days on board a vomit-ridden Baltic cruise on which over 400 passengers came down with norovirus, the winter bug, Oriana passengers finally arrive home.

Norovirus 'plague ship' docks in Southampton (R)

The Oriana docked at Southampton port on Friday morning. But despite the cold and rainy weather, all 1,800 passengers were eager to get off what has been called the “plague” ship

Two days after the ship set sail on 4 December, passengers were informed of a norovirus outbreak on board and told that they would be restricted to restaurant sittings at specific times, rather than self-service.

As the cruise continued, staff struggled to cope, and passengers reported toilets smelling of vomit, room service that failed to turn up, and cancelled events.

Passengers staged several meetings in response to what they said was a lack of communication from senior staff and restricted services, and threatened to stage a sit-in on arrival at Southampton.

I predict a riot?

One told Channel 4 News that a “riot” nearly broke out at one stage. “They asked the captain to see them, and they were all out stamping and shouting on the stairs,” said Ann Wheal, 70, from Southampton [pictured below with her husband, Peter].

At its peak on day three of the trip, the number of people who contracted the virus rose to 164. Southampton port health authority told Channel 4 News the total number of reported cases so far, were 390 passengers and 27 crew, however there could have been many more cases which were not officially reported.

Norovirus outbreaks on cruise ships are not unusual. And this year especially has seen a 72 per cent rise in the number of reports of norovirus nationally, according to the most recent figures from the Health Protection Agency. Three-quarters of a million people are thought to have contracted the disease already this year.

P&O Managing Director Carol Marlow told Channel 4 News that service onboard the sick-ridden ship was not always up to scratch, as staff tried to cope with the outbreak, and apologised to the passengers.

Read more: Norovirus winter vomiting bug – key questions answered

Ann and Peter Wheal


“Every mealtime you’d meet someone who had a different moan to tell,” said Ms Wheal. Her husband, Peter, 76, came down with a mild form of the winter vomiting bug and was confined to his cabin for 48 hours.

“You couldn’t believe it was so badly managed,” she added. “The whole thing was chaotic. One day, we’d ordered room service, and we didn’t get any breakfast altogether.”

The majority of passengers on board the cruise, which cost up to £2,889 per person, were elderly, and many suffered from additional health problems.

Ms Wheal was on the cruise in an attempt to recover from major surgery. “If I had been ill, it would have caused major problem,” she added.

But passengers were most concerned about those due to set sail on the evening of 14 December, for the Oriana’s Christmas cruise.

“I feel so sorry for them,” said Denise Weston, 60, from the Isle of Wight who was on board the Oriana with her husband, Brian. [pictured below]. “If they don’t get rid of it, passengers will be spending Christmas Day and Boxing Day confined to their cabins. That’s some happy Christmas.”

Mr Weston, who had an attack of norovirus, said the atmosphere on board was one of paranoia and suspicion. “I was confined to my cabin. But when my wife went to have dinner, other passengers questioned why she was there,” he said. “Everyone was so worried about the virus spreading.”

Denise and Brian Weston


Despite the horrendous conditions on board the “plague ship” the authorities monitoring the cruiseliner said all the required procedures were followed. Passengers were concerned that there had been a norovirus outbreak on the previous sailing, which may have exacerbated conditions for their cruise.

But Southampton port health authority said enough time was left for a deep clean before the ship left port on 4 December.

“Using a fire-break [keeping the ship at the harbour for three days] can be very useful in controlling the spread of infection,” Sandra Westacott, team leader at Southampton port health authority, told Channel 4 News.

“But if someone else turns up with infection, and they don’t know they’re infected, it goes on again. It is not an easy virus to control, especially in a population that is confined to a ship.”

Ms Marlow, P&O MD, told Channel 4 News that her sympathies lay with the passengers and acknowledged that staff were struggling to cope with the added demands of the outbreak. “I have apologised to the passengers. We want them to have a good time. No-one wants to be sick on their holidays,” she said.

But she pointed out the increased level of norovirus this year nationally meant it was very difficult to contain the outbreak and said the company could not compensate fully for a national illness: “I have written to all the passengers to say how sorry I am, and told them that we will deal with compensation claims on an individual basis.”