Publicly-owned ferry company Caledonian MacBrayne has raised legal proceedings against the Scottish government after its decision to appoint Serco as the preferred bidder for the Northern Isles service.
The decision by CalMac was confirmed by transport minister Paul Wheelhouse in the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday.
He said that given the ongoing legal proceedings, Scottish ministers were limited in what they can say, so as not to prejudice the outcome of those proceedings.
However, Mr Wheelhouse said that the government remained fully committed to the provision of safe, effective and reliable ferry services to Shetland and Orkney.
Mr Wheelhouse said: “Transport Scotland is liaising with the current operator, Serco Limited, to make arrangements for the extension of the current contract to maintain continuity of service and to ensure full connectivity to and from the Northern Isles.
“This will mean that the local communities, passengers and businesses who rely on the services, and the staff who work on them, will not be affected by the legal proceedings and services will be run as normal throughout this period.”
Mr Wheelhouse said the legal proceedings would not affect the recent commitment to fare reductions on Shetland routes for islanders, including a 20 per cent discount on cabin fares and a three-year fares freeze from January 2020.
Orkney MSP Liam McArthur said it was deeply disappointing that CalMac had chosen to go down this route. It was not clear what the basis for the legal challenge is but communities in Orkney and Shetland would be appalled at the latest development.
He said: “Island residents and businesses depend on these lifeline services. The letting of this contract has already been delayed by more than 18 months. Continued uncertainty over the future of the service is the last thing communities in Orkney and Shetland need.
“Ministers must do everything possible to resolve this dispute as quickly as possible”.
Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart added: “Procurement for the next Northern Isles ferry service contract has been hit by a number of unacceptable delays which does nothing to reassure people in the Northern Isles that the government is committed to improving our lifeline ferry services.
“It is imperative that this dispute is resolved as soon as possible in the best interests of people in Orkney and Shetland.”
Highlands and Islands Tory MSP Jamie Halcro Johnston, who lives in Orkney, also weighed in over the situation.
He said: “It’s quite incredible that the SNP is being sued by one if its own quangos.
“It tells you everything you need to know about the mess the SNP government has made of ferry services that a publicly owned company wants to take it to court, leading to more uncertainty and delay for travellers.
“When factored in with the completely unacceptable delays with the two new ferries being built, the delays on reducing fares to Orkney and Shetland and its refusal to meet its pledge on fair funding for inter-island ferries this really is turning into a fiasco.
“People in the islands want assurances that these vital links will be secure and that improvements to the service will start to get underway. But with the SNP in sole charge of transport for more than 12 years, things just keep getting worse.
“This is what happens when you have a nationalist government completely distracted by the constitution.”