• Cyril McAree

OPW Announces Closure Of Skellig Michael Site For The 2020 Season

The Office of Public Works (OPW) today announced that the Skellig Michael World Heritage Property will not open to visitors in 2020 because of Covid–19 concerns. Opening of the Island heritage site had been scheduled to take place on 15th May but this will not now happen. In light of the continuing restrictions governing the reopening of tourism locations, which is generally to begin in Phase 1 after May 18th, the OPW, in liaison with the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, have concluded that it was not feasible to maintain visitor and staff safety at Skellig and that the Island must remain closed to visitors this summer. OPW intend to carry out a maintenance inspection next week when key National Monuments technical staff will travel to the Island for the first time this year.

Skellig Michael lies 12 Km off the Kerry coast and is only accessible to visitors by boat, with vessels limited to 12 people each and making one trip per day only during the season. “The character of the passenger journey to Skellig Michael is, in our view, highly challenging when considering Covid-19 risks” an OPW spokesman stated today. “On a mobile, constantly-moving platform like a boat, there are multiple touch and clutch points which passengers will hold onto and of course they all need direct assistance to safely board the vessel and get off at the destination pier. In these circumstances, prevention of virus transmission is extremely difficult and we have concluded that it is not feasible to guarantee passenger safety.” Social distancing of visitors while on the island is also considered to be extremely difficult to maintain. Narrow traffic routes for people going to the Monastery make it extremely difficult to pass at a 2 metre gap and to achieve the necessary physical separation so that all people travelling to the Island can remain safe during their visit. In addition to the risks to visitors, OPW have also concluded that risks to their on-island Guide staff are significant. “Accommodation facilities are extremely limited on the Island and OPW staff are required to live in close proximity to each other and to share washing and toilet facilities” the spokesman said. “Additionally, it is highly likely that Guides would frequently during the course of a visitor season have to assist and administer first aid to visitors who are unwell. Clearly, in a situation like this where close physical proximity is a necessity, this could be a real problem where water and washing facilities are limited and we feel there is significant scope for difficulties in that regard”. The OPW have taken this decision extremely reluctantly, mindful of the iconic place Skellig Michael holds in the minds of visitors and Irish citizens alike and, considering its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, have consulted specifically with the Department of Culture Heritage and the Gaeltacht about the decision. “We are acutely conscious of the value of Skellig Michael to so many, including as a tourism attraction to the immediate area and indeed the whole of South Kerry” the OPW spokesman said. “Obviously, we are concerned at the economic impact that this will have but we have no other option but to interpret the public health guidelines as best we can to keep visitors and staff safe during this emergency.” The Skellig Experience Centre, located in Portmagee is also a significant destination for visitors locally. It is managed by a private entity on Licence from the OPW and, like other similar visitor attractions, has been closed to business since 26th March. OPW have been in touch with the Centre management team who have confirmed that the Centre will remain closed for the foreseeable future but hope it can open at a later stage in the summer when circumstances allow and in line with the Return to Work Safely Protocol published by Government last week. Commenting on the OPW announcement, Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Josepha Madigan TD, said: 'We understand the disappointment it will cause but, in the context of public health, the particular access arrangements for the Skellig Michael World Heritage Property mean that there is no alternative but to make this decision for the safety of boatmen, visitors and OPW guides. Our heritage estate has much to offer in terms of helping the national recovery from the Covid emergency and my Department will be working closely with OPW and other heritage site managers over the coming period on the graduated and safe reopening of our heritage estate as circumstances permit.'

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