All crew members stranded on the virus-hit Ruby Princess cruise ship will be tested for Covid-19 within 48 hours, the New South Wales government has promised.
On Wednesday transport worker advocates said only a quarter of the 1,100 crew had been tested, even as other states expanded testing to anyone with even mild symptoms.
Nationally, there have been more than 600 confirmed cases and 19 deaths from the coronavirus outbreak onboard Ruby Princess. So far 149 crew have tested positive from approximately 300 tests.
Dean Summers from the International Transport Workers’ Federation said it was hypocritical not to provide 100% testing on the ship, which is docked in Port Kembla, as the NSW government rolled out mass testing in other parts of the state.
NSW Health has increased testing in various suburbs with high coronavirus rates, installing a mobile testing clinic at Bondi beach. On Wednesday the premier, Gladys Berejiklian, told residents of those suburbs: “If you have any symptoms, please come forward and get tested.” On Thursday the NSW chief health officer, Dr Kerry Chant, said the state was moving towards anyone with mild symptoms being eligible for testing.
“There’s no excuse,” Summers told Guardian Australia on Wednesday. “They can’t explain it. That is counter to what every single person and health professional in the world is telling us.
“That’s why they have mobile clinics in Bondi and all around the metropolitan area, but when it comes to these poor buggers they forget about them.”
A spokesman for the private company tasked with providing medical services on the ship, Aspen Medical, said it could only test those approved by NSW Health.
On Thursday NSW Health said testing would be carried out for all crew over the next 48 hours.
A spokesman said crew members who were asymptomatic had not been tested previously because that “can often lead to false negative results”. But that would now be changed to test everyone.
“Crew members have been tested progressively, beginning with those who first developed symptoms,” the spokesman said. “Testing on people with no symptoms of Covid-19 can often lead to false negative results. For this reason, NSW Health only tests people with symptoms such as fever, sore throat, a dry cough or other respiratory symptoms.
“[But] in order to gain a better understanding of whether crew were developing immunity, we have expanded testing. Over the next 48 hours we expect all crew who have yet to be tested – as they are currently asymptomatic – to have been tested for Covid-19.
“So far 149 crew on board the Ruby Princess have tested positive for Covid-19 and a further 11 crew members are in NSW health facilities with Covid-19. While the epidemiological evidence indicates there has been transmission of the virus on the vessel, this appears to have slowed.”
On Wednesday the South Australian chief public health officer, Dr Nicola Spurrier, said anyone in that state with even “mild symptoms” would be able to be tested.
The NSW police commissioner, Mick Fuller, said he was “working towards” a “hopeful departure date” of Sunday for the Ruby Princess.
Summers said Australia had a legal and humanitarian obligation to help crew members, who are in quarantine in their cabins, by testing them, treating them and allowing them to return to their home countries.
He said the operator of the Ruby Princess, Carnival Cruises, had confirmed it was willing to pay for the costs of repatriation.
“Some people have been locked down since the 20th of April,” he said. “They are terrified. Some crew are absolutely beside themselves, and their families writing to me from all over the world.”
He said the Uruguayan government had helped 112 Australians and New Zealanders who were stranded on the Greg Mortimer cruise ship. Those passengers were evacuated from Montevideo and arrived in Melbourne on Sunday.
“It’s achievable,” Summers said. “The South Americans did it for us a couple of days ago. That’s the way the Uruguayans treat our people. And how do we treat their people? We lock them up for 30 days.”
The NSW government has announced a special commission of inquiry into the docking of the Ruby Princess, led by the barrister Bret Walker SC, and NSW police are also conducting an investigation.
Princess Cruises took out a full-page newspaper advertisement on Thursday saying it would support all inquiries.