Coronavirus: NSW government considers military-style operation to test crew on cruise ships off Australia's coast

International Transport Workers’ Federation has called on the government to repatriate 15,000 crew members from the cruise ships off Australia’s coast

The NSW government may use a military-style operation to test all cruise ship crew members currently off the coast of Sydney and Wollongong in an attempt to end a maritime standoff involving multiple ships which were ordered to leave Australian waters by police.

“You could imagine, you know, dropping doctors, specialists across eight ships, 9,000 people, you know, it’s a big task in itself,” NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller said.

“Anyone who requires urgent medical attention, we bring off and put into our hospital system.”

Fuller said he feared the NSW health system did not have the capacity to bring all 9,000 crew onto land, especially as many of the cruise ships have seen Covid-19 outbreaks.

“My fear is, by bringing 9,000 people off the cruise ships into isolation, not knowing if they have the virus or they may develop symptoms, that would absolutely overload our hospital system and everything that we have done to this point would be for nothing.”

Little is known about the state of health of the crew members on more than a dozen large cruise ships just off Australia’s coast. Most have a crew of more than 1,000 who often live in close quarters below decks.

At least a dozen people have already been brought to shore off these ships requiring urgent medical attention.

The NSW government hopes that after this medical work is done, these vessels will return to their ports of origin.

“A ship left two nights ago, and there’s information that over the next couple of nights another couple of ships will refuel and restock and go back to their original port, or their port of origin. So, we are chipping away,” Fuller said.

The International Transport Workers’ Federation wants the Australian government to allow the thousands of crew members on the ships to be disembarked and flown home to their countries of residence amid fears the vessels will become humanitarian disasters if coronavirus takes hold aboard.

In the case of the Ruby Princess, which was sitting off Botany Bay, six crew had already had to be medically evacuated. The ship has been linked to more than 400 cases among passengers who disembarked on 19 March and 8 March in Sydney.

The ship, registered in the Bahamas, had 1,100 crew members still on board.

Sign up for Guardian Australia’s daily coronavirus email newsletter

“We call on governments to repatriate crew members to their countries, leaving only crew for maritime operations, and the cruise lines should pay for it,” said Dean Summers, the national coordinator for the International Transport Workers’ Federation in Australia.

“This is an emerging humanitarian catastrophe,” he said. “I feel sympathy for the passengers, but crew are living in much more dangerous conditions,” he said.

At least 18 foreign-registered ships were docked or floating in Australian waters, with an approximate total of 15,000 crew on board.

In New South Wales, the Voyager of the Seas and Celebrity Solstice, with approximately 1,200 crew each, were docked at Port Kembla near Wollongong, while the Radiance of the Seas (894 crew), Ovation of the Seas (1,500 crew), Spectrum of the Seas (1,551 crew) and Carnival Splendour (1,150 crew) were off the coast.

As of Wednesday, six crew members from the Radiance of the Seas had been brought ashore to hospital, and there had been 79 confirmed cases of coronavirus linked to the Ovation of the Seas.

In Sydney, the Pacific Explorer was docked at the White Bay cruise terminal, while the Ruby Princess was off the coast.

In Queensland, the Sun Princess (924 crew), was heading to Gladstone, according to ship tracking site Marine Traffic. The Carnival Spirit (930 crew) was off the coast of Brisbane, while the Sea Princess (910 crew), Azamara Journey (408 crew) and Pacific Dawn were all floating off the Sunshine Coast. The Queen Elizabeth cruise ship, with 1,005 crew, was docked in Gladstone.

In Western Australia, the Artania cruise ship and its 450 crew refused to leave on Wednesday, after 29 Australian passengers on board tested positive for Covid-19 and were taken to hospital.

The state’s premier, Mark McGowan, said he believed “the federal government needs to step up here … I just urge [them] to resolve the situation as soon as possible”.

The world’s largest private residential ship, The World, was off the coast of Fremantle with 280 crew. The Golden Princess (1,100 crew) and Viking Orion were docked in Melbourne, and the Pacific Aria (602 crew) was docked in Adelaide.

Most of the ships were sailing under flags of convenience from Caribbean countries, but Summers said this was done to avail the cruise lines of tax havens and to avoid first world employment conditions and wages.

He said if the cruise ships returned to the ports they were flagged to, they would not even have berths for them.

In what is developing into a legal quagmire, the NSW police commissioner, Mick Fuller, ordered the six ships off the coast of NSW to return to their port of origin, but they remained offshore.

The NSW Port Authority has been permitting cruise ships to refuel and take on food, and the Radiance of the Seas and Carnival Sprit departed Port Kembla this morning.

The maritime law expert John Kavanagh from Pacific Maritime said Australia had an economic zone stretching 200 miles offshore; and a 12 mile zone that is considered to be part of the nation. In between was the contiguous zone between 12 and 24 miles which allowed coastal nations to police bad behaviour such as drug smuggling and pollution.

But Kavanagh said there was also an exception of “innocent passage”, which allowed ships “as of right” to navigate through these zones.

He said there were also obligations on Australia under international treaties, adopted by the Navigation Act, which imposed a duty to render assistance to ships in distress.

Summers said a declaration of distress would trigger obligations for Australian governments, although he noted that when the MV Tampa, having picked up 433 asylum seekers from waters off the north-west coast of Australia sought the right to bring them to Australian waters, the Howard government refused.

“We rescue millionaire yachtsmen at great cost, so we should honour our obligations,” he said.

A number of the cruise ships currently offshore claim Australian ports as their ‘home ports’ and operate in the Pacific, but they pay no Australian tax and employ few Australians.

“The concept of ‘home port’ is simply an arcane rule and doesn’t mean anything. It’s the flag which determines what law applies,” Kavanagh said.

In a bid to avoid a repeat of the the Ruby Princess fiasco of two weeks ago, the federal and state governments set up a task force, with the department of foreign affairs and the NSW police commissioner as the decision makers.

On 28 March, the NSW health minister, Brad Hazzard, signed an order that means no one can leave these cruise ships, including Australian citizens, without the permission of the police commissioner.

“Allowances will be made to allow ships to reprovision, and cargo ships can continue to dock but no one can leave them without the police commissioner’s express permission,” a spokesman for the NSW police said.

Earlier in the week, the commissioner said: “They don’t pay taxes in Australia, they don’t park their boats in Australia, their primary flags are often in the Caribbean in different islands. [It’s] time to go home.”

On Tuesday, a spokeswoman for Royal Caribbean – which operates the Radiance of the Seas, Voyager of the Seas, Ovation of the Seas and Spectrum of the Seas – said that the ships were “in the process of leaving Australia”.

“All scheduled passenger disembarkations in Australia have been completed and cruising operations suspended,” she said, citing a statement from Cruise Lines International Association Australasia. “This leaves a number of out-of-service ships, either at berth or at anchor, or in the process of leaving Australia.

“Cruise lines are now focused on the arrangements to repatriate crew to their homes and families, and preparing their ships to be laid up with skeleton crew for the duration they are out-of-service.

“Cruise lines are working with the federal government on approvals for out-of-service ships that are home-ported in Australia to remain here, while it is planned that the rest of the ships will leave Australia as soon as practicably possible.”


Anne Davies, Naaman Zhou and Matilda Boseley

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
NSW Port Authority warned in January of ‘gaping hole’ in coronavirus biosecurity checks
Maritime union said the requirement for ships to ‘self-declare’ illness was ‘woefully inadequate’ 50 days before Ruby Princess allowed to offload sick passengers in Sydney

Matilda Boseley and Naaman Zhou

26, Mar, 2020 @6:55 AM

Article image
Anatomy of a coronavirus disaster: how 2,700 people were let off the Ruby Princess cruise ship by mistake
Here is the timeline which led to dozens of people with Covid-19 being allowed to disembark in Sydney

Naaman Zhou

24, Mar, 2020 @2:41 AM

Article image
All Ruby Princess crew to be tested for Covid-19 within 48 hours
Exclusive: NSW Health said testing asymptomatic people could lead to false positive results for coronavirus, but will now expand testing to understand cruise ship crew’s immunity

Naaman Zhou

16, Apr, 2020 @5:54 AM

Article image
Australia Covid-19: education minister orders independent schools to reopen – as it happened
Dan Tehan wants all schools to provide in-person teaching to children whose parents want it; NRL says it will return on 28 May. This blog is now closed

Michael McGowan, Josh Taylor and Amy Remeikis

09, Apr, 2020 @11:08 AM

Article image
Twelve new Australian Covid-19 cases reported – as it happened
This blog is now closed

Graham Readfearn (now), Calla Wahlquist (earlier) and Amy Remeikis (earlier)

23, Apr, 2020 @12:09 PM

Article image
Myer announces it will close stores and stand down 10,000 staff due to Covid-19 crisis – as it happened
PM announces all arrivals to be quarantined for 14 days after four die on worst single-day toll of the Covid-19 crisis so far. This blog is now closed.

Calla Wahlquist (now) Lisa Cox (earlier) Josh Taylor (earlier)

27, Mar, 2020 @10:22 AM

Article image
Australia coronavirus: government to pay airlines to continue domestic flights – as it happened
Coalition agrees to pay airlines to keep ‘minimal schedule’ of Australian flights, Kevin Rudd slams Donald Trump’s ‘lunatic’ WHO decision, and Australian leaders discuss school attendance. This blog is now closed

Lisa Cox (now) and Luke Henriques-Gomes andAmy Remeikis (earlier)

16, Apr, 2020 @10:21 AM

Article image
CMO 'certain' travel bubble between Australia and New Zealand will eventuate – as it happened
ABS reports growth slowed to 1.4% through the year as industrial relations roundtables prepare an agenda to regrow the jobs lost during Covid-19. This blog is now closed

Elias Visontay, Luke Henriques-Gomes and Amy Remeikis

03, Jun, 2020 @8:21 AM

Article image
Australia's coronavirus cases continue to decline as government backtracks on vaccine statements – as it happened
The prime minister now says the Covid vaccine will be ‘encouraged’, revising his earlier statement to make it as ‘mandatory’ as possible. This blog is now closed

Lisa Cox (now) and Amy Remeikis (earlier)

19, Aug, 2020 @9:07 AM

Article image
‘Significant decrease’ in NSW Covid cases predicted as Victoria nears peak – as it happened
This blog is now closed

Stephanie Convery and Caitlin Cassidy

17, Jan, 2022 @7:28 AM