A new Covid-19 health assurance accreditation has been awarded to Saga.

The move by maritime safety experts Lloyd’s Register is described as a “crucial step” ahead of the planned return of cruise operations next spring next year in a Covid-secure environment.

The over-50s operator is the first cruise company to gain the ‘Shield+’ accreditation, the highest category of health assurance.

Saga’s ships have been surveyed and inspected in all key areas and the accreditation has been awarded for both Spirit of Discovery and new ship Spirit of Adventure, which is due to enter service in May 2021.

The new framework has been created to reduce risk and provide greater confidence in the safety procedures of operators against the introduction of infectious diseases on board cruise ships, including Covid-19, norovirus and common flu.

The development comes as the cruise industry works with government to restart a sector that employs 88,000 people and is worth £10 billion a year to the UK economy.

The safety accreditation is assessed against six key categories covering every aspect of ship safety where health risks are “elevated” – medical, policy, food, ventilation, accommodation and water.

Being awarded the accreditation demonstrates that Saga exceeds the compliance criteria in every category set out by the UK Chamber of Shipping in their guidance for Covid Secure Cruising, which has been supported by the government, according to the company.

“Award of the accreditation follows months of detailed planning from Saga, designing and putting in place detailed new procedures to meet the highest standards of health and safety,” Saga said.

Saga Travel chief executive Nick Stace said: “This important step removes one of the last barriers to a safe return for cruising.

“We know there is considerable pent-up demand from our customers for cruising.

“In our most recent round of cancellations, more than 80% of guests immediately rolled their booking over to a new cruise and our guests tell us they are ready to sail.”

Joep Bollerman, Lloyd’s Register global passenger ship manager, added: “Our new standards are based on medical science from the global health industry, including guidance from the World Health Organisation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in line with the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).

“Shield+ provides a detailed survey and inspection regime of the key areas where health risks are elevated, which helps operators like Saga maintain the highest health standards at sea.”