‘Gobsmacked’: Fallout over virus outbreak
AFTER the death of a 70-year-old who had been on board the Ruby Princess, the Commissioner of the Australian Border Force Michael Outram has pointed the finger at exactly who is responsible for allowing nearly 2700 passengers to disembark the infected cruise ship last week.
More than 130 people from the ship have since tested positive for coronavirus, among them a woman in her 70s who died in hospital yesterday morning.
During a press conference today, Mr Outram said NSW Health was responsible for allowing passengers to leave the ship on Thursday March 19, 2020, after they were informed some passengers were unwell 24 hours prior to disembarkation.
"New South Wales Health was advised that passengers were isolated with flu-like symptoms," he said on Wednesday morning.
"On March 18, the Department of Agriculture informed through Ruby Princess that
a risk assessment had been conducted, and that it was low risk.
"They [NSW Health] had given clearance for all passengers to disembark the vessel. That red light has just gone green."
Mr Outram said because the health department deemed the ship as "low-risk" it was allowed to dock into Sydney's Circular Quay on March 19.
"As a result of that information, all of the passengers were given a green light to disembark."
His comments follow NSW Chief Medical Officer Dr Kerry Chant, who insinuated that the cruise line was in fact at fault, saying one of the ship's crew members most likely spread the virus to the passengers.
"We are particularly concerned that a crew member on board that ship had the disease and then transmitted it to a larger (group)," Dr Chant said.
"There was no recognition that anyone on that ship had COVID-19. The reports of the level of activity and respiratory virus activity on that ship didn't indicate any pattern of it."
She said many developed symptoms shortly after disembarking.
"Those passengers have been infected on the ship and no action by NSW Health or otherwise could alter that," Dr Chant said. "There's no issue that that could have been prevented by any action."
Dr Chant said "there was clearly seeding and we are particularly concerned that a crew member on board that ship had the disease and then transmitted it" to a large number of passengers.
Asked whether the crew member had lied to people, she added, "The crew member wouldn't have known."
She said New Zealand had actually "undertaken testing for COVID-19 on the ship and there had been no evidence of COVID-19".
"I want to be clear - those people, those cases we're reporting now were exposed on the cruise ship," she said. "There is no action that NSW Health could have taken to stop those cases."
Asked whether "alarm bells" should have been going off when passengers were being removed from the ship on stretchers, Dr Chant said it was "not unexpected that from time to time cruise ships do disembark passengers" who are unwell.
"I will look at what information was available to them," she said. "Be assured we are doing a thorough investigation and we'll release the report publicly but I can't highlight enough that many people's symptoms onset occurred on the day of disembarkation and subsequent days."
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said "all of us have to take responsibility" but declined to name the official who allowed the passengers to disembark or say whether anyone would lose their jobs.
Today host Karl Stefanovic slammed the decision to let passengers disembark, labelling the move a "complete disaster".
"This has been no less than a disaster," Stefanovic said this morning.
"It's a complete stuff-up at every single level of management of our borders. I know the Premier was in the paper today blaming Border Force, but it was an unmitigated disaster on every level of government to allow people to disembark that ship.
"You have to get those things right in a crisis like this. Otherwise we see exponentially the numbers go up. We are doing everything we can at home. Everyone is doing their best. Some people who aren't but the majority are. To let these people go (off the shop) is a disaster."
HOW DID PASSENGERS LEAVE THE SHIP?
Passengers who have left the ship say they were not told that anyone on board presented any symptoms during the voyage.
Elisa McCafferty, an Australian woman who flew home to London with her husband immediately after disembarking the ship last Thursday, told the BBC nothing was said at anytime about anyone being sick on board.
"It was a distinct lack of information coming through from Princess the entire time," she said.
"I turned on my phone and I started getting all these notifications from people back in Australia saying 'there's been confirmed cases on the Ruby'.
"And I was just absolutely petrified. We had just been on two full flights - what if we had infected someone?"
Another passenger, Bill Beerens who lives in Sydney, tested positive for the virus the day he disembarked.
"I think that they let us down," Mr Beerens told the ABC.
"I do honestly believe that they [(cruise ship management) knew what was going on and they just wanted us off the boat."
HOW DID THE 'DISASTER' HAPPEN?
After setting off on an 11-day voyage on March 8, the ship was forced to return to Sydney early after a handful of passengers started to feel unwell with respiratory symptoms.
It is understood those who presented with an illness had swabs taken for COVID-19, however other passengers were not informed.
As a result, thousands were allowed to leave the ship on March 19, travelling on board public transport, and onwards to other Australian states and even internationally.
Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan lashed NSW's handling of the Ruby Princess cruise ship for allowing passengers to disembark in Sydney.
Mr McGowan told reporters on Sunday that while NSW had people coming off ships and able to roam in Sydney, his state managed the docking of MSC Magnifica in to Freemantle quite differently.
"We managed the cruise ship very, very well so quite different to what happened in NSW," Mr McGowan said.
Passengers claim they were not screened or even asked if they felt unwell before leaving the ship, and those travelling back to international destinations were advised they could need to isolate upon returning home.
Within 24 hours of the ship docking and passengers getting off, the first three cases of COVID-19 were confirmed - two passengers and one crew member.
WHO IS TO BLAME FOR THE DECISION?
While Dr Chant has pushed blame on to the cruise liner, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said "all of us (in government) have to take responsibility."
"Every single agency needs to take responsibility on our borders," she said today.
In the days after the cruise ship docking, Prime Minister Scott Morrison described the mistake as the responsibility of state officials.
NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard told reporters on Saturday that "maybe" they should have held all passengers on the ship, however rejected any accusations state officials had not properly checked cruise ships upon entry.
"New South Wales is actually going over and above what the national guidelines are," Mr Hazzard said.
Deputy Labor Leader Kristina Keneally said the disastrous decision was "gobsmacking".
"The Prime Minister said he would stop the cruise ships, he did not stop the cruise ships," she said in Parliament on Wednesday.
"On March 15...Scott Morrison announced to the Australian public [that] the Australian government will ban cruise ships from foreign ports arriving at Australian ports.
"Except there was another cruise ship, the Ruby Princess.
"It is gobsmacked that we are in this circumstance today. The Prime Minister said he would stop the cruise ships, he did not stop the cruise ships."
Dr Chant said a report would investigate how the ship docked and passengers with COVID-19 symptoms were allowed to disperse into Sydney and beyond.
News.com.au has contacted Carnival Cruises for comment.
- with Frank Chung
Originally published as 'Gobsmacked': Fallout over virus outbreak