The hotel manager on the Ruby Princess cruise ship has told an inquiry he “does not recall” the Australian Border Force being involved in the cruise ship’s docking and disembarkation in Sydney.

Charles Verwall told the special commission of inquiry into the cruise ship that New South Wales Health had been involved, and had told the ship’s staff to ask sick passengers to present to the ship’s doctors, but did not want to conduct an on-board assessment before docking.

Verwall also echoed the comments of the ship’s senior doctor, who told the inquiry yesterday that she was “surprised” passengers were allowed off the ship before coronavirus test results had come back.

Nationally, more than 600 people have contracted Covid-19 and 21 people have died after travelling on the Ruby Princess cruise ship. The passengers travelled across two trips between Sydney and New Zealand, and docked in Sydney on 8 March and 18 March.

On Thursday, Verwall told the inquiry that NSW Health officials boarded the ship on 8 March to conduct an assessment, but was surprised they did not do the same on the 18th or 19th. “We were expecting the same treatment from NSW Health as we received on the 8th,” he said.

The manager said he was “surprised we were not screened by NSW Health in the morning [of the 19th]” even though swabs to be tested for Covid-19 had been taken.

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Commissioner Bret Walker SC asked Verwall whether he observed any Australian Border Force officers having “any involvement of any kind in the disembarkation”.

“I do not recall that at all,” Verwall said.

“You did not observe any ABF involvement at all?” Walker asked.

“That is correct,” he said.

Verwall also told the inquiry on Thursday that the cruise ship had been sailing “in the red zone” of the cruise company’s infectious disease scale for the entirety of the trip between 8 March and 18 March.

Counsel assisting the inquiry, Richard Beasley SC, told the inquiry that the “infectious diseases policy of Princess Cruises has levels in green and red. “What level were you in when you docked on the 8th of March?” he asked Verwall.

“We operated in the red level,” the hotel manager replied.

“Did the ship retain in that red zone through the voyage of 8th to 18th of March?”

“Yes.”

Internal logs from the ship showed that more than 100 passengers had been ill when the ship docked in Sydney on 8 March. 2,700 passengers then boarded the ship that same day for a second cruise, which returned to Sydney on 18 March.

Verwall told the inquiry that passengers were asked on the 16th and 17th to present to on-board medical staff if they had health issues, “at the request of NSW public health”.

He then told the inquiry he did not observe any involvement of the Border Force in disembarkation.

Walker asked the hotel manager: “Does it follow then, that there was nothing done to check passports?

“I saw border patrol force was at the end of the terminal when guests were leaving, but I don’t think that was for guests, it was for crew,” he said.

He said he did not have any communication with managers or executives of the cruise ship’s operating company between 18 March and disembarkation on the 19th.

The hotel manager also said they instituted an “elevated level of hygiene”, and this commenced before the second boatload of passengers boarded on 8 March.

He said staff conducted “a complete sanitisation of all public areas and cabins”.

However, he confirmed there were “dancers” and “a nightclub” on the ship and there “were no social distancing protocols” for those activities, or for the ship’s on-board cinema.

In Canberra, the commonwealth chief medical officer, Brendan Murphy, told a Senate committee into Covid-19 that he was “not directly involved” and “operational decisions” were made by state and territory human biosecurity officers.

He also said that there were “mistakes made”.

“In retrospect there were some decisions that were made that everyone regrets ... Clearly, there were mistakes made. Everyone was doing their best in tricky and tense times. Let’s not blame anybody but wait and see [the outcome of the NSW special commission of inquiry].”

Walker opened Thursday’s hearing by rejecting claims that the first day of the commission was “concealed” from the public.

On Wednesday, NSW Labor leader Jodi McKay said she had been taken by surprise by the first day of hearings, saying “the premier hid this fact at her 8am press conference”.

On Thursday, Walker released a statement saying the commission started suddenly because witnesses were only confirmed on Tuesday.

“The reason for the late notice for the commencement of the hearings and the lack of ‘fanfare’ about them is that neither I nor any member of the special commission staff knew that the hearings were going to go ahead until late on 21 April 2020,” he said.

Walker said the commission was totally independent, and there was no “concealment” from the NSW government.

“The decision to convene hearings this week was mine, and mine alone … None of the matters … have anything to do with any minister of the NSW government, much less the premier.

“There was no concealment,” he said. “As soon as summonses were served, there was public announcement of the hearing. Which was held in public, livestreamed, and a transcript of evidence will soon be available.”

The inquiry will continue at a later date.

Contributor

Naaman Zhou

The GuardianTramp

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