Warden Shapps has bolted the door on our cruise hopes for no good reason

MSC Magnifica will set sail next week for the first time since March
MSC Magnifica will set sail next week for the first time since March Credit: FABIO BUSSALINO

So that’s it then. That slightly ajar door that allowed us Britons to glimpse – nay, hope for – a not-too-distant future when we might be allowed on one of the MSC cruises that have started around Italy, has slammed shut.  

Not just shut, but firmly bolted by Warden Shapps, who announced yesterday that yet another of the UK’s air corridors has collapsed

Starting from 4am on Sunday morning, anyone coming to the UK from Italy will have to quarantine. It seems leaping from one muddy pool (that’s the one we’re in) to another muddy pool (that’s the one in Italy) is just too dangerous.

Any Brits who choose to ignore the diktat and go anyway will not have travel insurance cover unless their policy specifically allows the holder to go against Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) advice. Rock Insurance brought one out last month that usefully also has Covid cover. 

MSC Cruises was the first cruise line to get a big ship back in action in the Med since the pandemic forced all shipping to come to a halt back in March. It has just one ship, MSC Grandiosa, in operation, sailing mainly around Italy, but she will be joined next week by MSC Magnifica. She will also stay mainly in Italian waters but with a couple of calls into Greece as well. Yes please.

But here’s the rub. Both cruises are exclusively for passengers from a Schengen country and as the UK has never been in Schengen we couldn’t go on any of these cruises, air corridor or no.

The glimmer of hope has been that the UK was excluded by MSC only because of the FCDO’s ban on ocean cruising. Antonio Paradiso, MSC’s UK and Ireland boss, assured me that as soon as the travel advice allows, MSC Cruises will be ready to welcome British and Irish residents. Hooray! Except now Italy is on the quarantine list.

And a change of heart at the FCDO doesn’t seem likely any time soon. In the summer, as air corridors opened up, it simply reiterated its ban on cruising (river cruise was exempted a few days later but it was a hollow victory as most European countries promptly went on the quarantine list) and still shows no sign of budging from that stance.

Cruising is worth billions of pounds to this country, it creates thousands of jobs – not just the ships’ crew, but the port staff, taxi drivers, caterers, travel agents – yet there remains an Animal Farm-like mentality in the FCDO and Department for Transport. Cruising is baaaaad, they decided in March, and no amount of evidence to the contrary will persuade them otherwise.

And there is plenty of evidence that cruising is safe. Mr Paradiso says MSC has carried more than 16,000 passengers since August and feedback from their passengers is that they felt safer on board than ashore.

That doesn’t surprise me. I went to Greece at the end of August to join a cruise. It meant flying for over three hours with goodness knows how many other people. That is allowed. I also had to stay one night in a hotel before joining my ship. That is also allowed. Yet going on a cruise, which complied with far stricter health protocols than either the airline or hotel, broke all the rules but felt so safe we almost forgot about Covid.

On my voyage, temperatures and blood oxygen levels were taken before we were allowed on board and then again every day. MSC goes further. Passengers must have a negative Covid-19 test before being allowed on board (it’s done in the terminal, results in 10-15 minutes if negative, 30-40 if positive), temperatures are taken daily and guests can only go ashore on ship’s excursions. On both lines, masks are de rigueur when moving around inside.

Am I and that 16,000 (and all the thousands who are cruising with other lines) reckless? Not at all. We’re realistic. Millions around the world went on cruises before coronavirus struck and polls show most want to get back to the holiday they love. It’s time for the FCDO and Warden Shapps to unlock that door.