Large passenger vessel accident 

Impact 5
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risk indicator
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Impact & Likelihood
Impact key
5 Catastrophic
4 Significant
3 Moderate
2 Limited
1 Minor
Likelihood key
5 >25%
4 5-25%
3 1-5%
2 0.2-1%
1 <0.2%


There is a risk that a large passenger vessel such as a cruise ship could sink in UK waters. This is a low likelihood risk, with the last major accident on a UK-flagged ship at sea having occurred in March 1987 when the Herald of Free Enterprise capsized shortly after leaving Zeebrugge en route to Dover, killing 193 people. International incidents further highlighted the seriousness of this risk should it manifest in the UK. However, the UK deals with many large passenger vessels – not just cruise ships – and has an exemplary safety record.


The reasonable worst-case scenario is based on a large passenger vessel (for example cruise ship or ferry) sinking, potentially caused by a collision with another vessel, fire or grounding. Significant numbers of people are aboard, who rapidly abandon the vessel. There would be no-notice fatalities and a substantial number of survivors requiring medical assistance at a shoreside landing point. Older adults with the potential for age-related health and mobility issues, and who would require extra assistance, would be expected on cruise ships. The provision of immediate humanitarian assistance could take several days to complete but would likely be longer in remote parts of the UK. Salvage operations could take several years.

Key assumptions

It is assumed for the purposes of the assessment that the incident would take place in the UK search and rescue zone, with passengers and crew being a mix of UK and non-UK nationals. The vessel would sink slowly, allowing search and rescue to take place. The damaged vessel would cause environmental damage.


A variation scenario is a blended incident involving very severe weather, partial abandonment, and one where significant pollution is involved. This would alter the capabilities and subsequent incident management required

Response capability requirements

Local level plans are in place to coordinate and respond to the need to provide medical assistance, decontamination,
accommodation and repatriation to people landed; however, there are fewer capabilities to do this in more remote locations. Specific requirements include: casualty triage; decontamination; ability to reunite families; language interpretation for foreign nationals; border force; and Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office input to assist persons without documentation, medication or accommodation. Port security may need consideration and communications capabilities between agencies landside and maritime at the landing point need to be strong. A robust capability to count and track casualties and survivors is required.


Recovery in terms of shoreside impacts where casualties are landed would be in the order of days and weeks and managed through existing plans and recovery arrangements in place at the local level. The exception would be remote, small communities who are involved in the response (for example Western Isles) where the incident may leave a lasting impact on the community. Recovery of the vessel and pollution are managed through the National Contingency Plan and commercial salvage routes (see Maritime Pollution Risk). If access to a port is impacted, recovery may take weeks to months.