Harbour master offered to prevent Ruby Princess docking after Border Force call, inquiry told

Sydney harbour master says ship was allowed to dock even though he had concerns about putting a pilot on board because of coronavirus

The harbour master on duty when the Ruby Princess docked in Sydney on 19 March offered to “turn it around” when he was called by the Australian Border Force expressing concerns about the ship, a special commission of inquiry has heard.

The inquiry into the cruise ship, which has been linked to 21 deaths and almost 700 cases of Covid-19, also heard that the ship was “hurried” back to Sydney because coronavirus swabs on board needed urgent testing, and that a sick passenger was taken by ambulance “directly to a Covid-designated area” of Royal Prince Alfred hospital.

Here are the main development’s from Wednesday’s evidence.

Harbour master called by Border Force

Cameron Butchart, the port services manager and duty harbour master for the NSW Port Authority, told the inquiry he had “a concern for the occupational health and safety” of sending a pilot on board to help the ship dock, because of Covid-19.

He said on the night of 18 March and again on 19 March he was called by representatives of Home Affairs and the Australian Border Force.

“This particular person certainly had concerns with the situation,” he said. “I used the phrase on the night ‘turn it around’ [which] was probably the simplest way to explain it to someone on shoreside.

“But we more than likely could have held the ship in a certain position. We could have dropped an anchor ... to allow us to gather some more facts.”

Commissioner Bret Walker SC asked Butchart: “Had you ever experienced anything like that before?”

“Never,” Butchart said.

The inquiry heard on Tuesday that the Ruby Princess was allowed to dock after a second call from the same Border Force officer.

Butchart rejected the idea that Home Affairs and Border Force were “not decision makers” and said they “would have been working very closely with biosecurity in making this decision” to let the ship dock.

On Tuesday the Border Force commissioner, Michael Outram, told a separate Senate inquiry the officer “didn’t tell the harbour master what he or she should or shouldn’t do. They’ve got no legislated authority to do that”.

Earlier on Wednesday the port agent for Carnival Australia, the operator of the Ruby Princess, told the inquiry ABF officers were “aware” that 11 passengers were in isolation on board with influenza-like illnesses.

Dobrila Tokovic said she met three ABF officers and one from the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment at 6am on 19 March and “[the ABF] asked me about the people in isolation”.

“They were aware of them already,” she said. “He asked me about where they were, were they isolated. I was advised that they didn’t want to see them.”

She said it was “not unusual for ABF officers to not want to see passengers who may be unwell”, and they could collect cards and details without coming face-to-face.

Paramedic taken to ‘Covid-designated’ area

The inquiry also heard testimony from two parademics who attended the ship on 19 March to take two passengers directly to hospital.

Trainee paramedic Simeon Pridmore said he wrote in his case description that “on board testing showed negative for influenza and [the patient was] suspected Covid”.

Pridmore said the ambulance he was in was taken “directly to a Covid-designated area” when it arrived at Royal Prince Alfred hospital.

Earlier, Tokovic said the ship’s doctor, Ilse von Watzdorf, told her the ambulances were for patients with “other conditions” affecting their hearts and nerves, rather than Covid-19.

She was questioned on why the patients were taken to RPA rather than St Vincent’s, which was the usual hospital used for cruise ship passengers.

Counsel assisting, Richard Beasley SC, said a transcript of her call showed she told paramedics: “We’ve been requested by New South Wales [sic] to take them to the Royal Prince Alfred.”

Tokovic told the inquiry: “We always select St Vincent’s, as just a common, ‘please send them to St Vincent’s’”.

Beasley told the inquiry Royal Prince Alfred was “allocated as a ‘Covid response hospital’” and asked if Tokovic if she recalled discussing that fact.

Tokovic said she did not recall.

Passenger was on oxygen support

Another paramedic, Mathew Symonds, told the inquiry that when he boarded the ship and went to its medical centre on 19 March, one of the passengers was receiving oxygen treatment using “nasal prongs”, also known as an “oxygen nasal cannula”.

Tokovic had earlier told the inquiry that when paramedics boarded the ship, she heard the on-board doctor discuss one patient’s “oxygen saturation” with them.

“She said that was what had changed throughout the night,” Tokovic said

Symonds said he then provided the patient with oxygen while transporting her, and the woman had had an oxygen saturation of 94%, which “with a comorbidity of emphysema” would “not strike me as odd”.

The woman later tested positive for Covid-19 and died in hospital.

In a written statement, Symonds said that when he boarded, the ship’s doctor or nurse said other passengers had already left the ship and gone to hospital to get tested for Covid-19.

Walker asked Symonds if he could have been confused and been told that “swabs” rather than passengers “had been disembarked for testing”. Symonds said that was “definitely not” the case.

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‘Not a Covid ship’

The inquiry also heard from Robert Rybanic, the senior manager of cruise and terminal operations at NSW Port Authority, who said that Paul Mifsud, a manager of Carnival Australia, told him the ship was “not a Covid ship” and “it was basically business as usual”.

Rybanic told the inquiry he spoke to Mifsud on the phone and Mifsud “could not explain at all why the ship docked”.

“He [Mifsud] said that NSW Health had deemed the ship low risk,” Rybanic said. “He said it was not a Covid ship, that the booking of ambulances were not related to Covid.”

Ship ‘hurried’ back for tests – which were delayed by 16 hours

The inquiry heard the Ruby Princess “hurried” back to Sydney because it had Covid-19 swabs that needed urgent testing, and as a result Border Force officers were not present when it docked.

Tokovic told the inquiry the ship was scheduled to dock at 6am, but came in at 3am.

“[The ABF] are present on the basis of the scheduled disembarkation time,” she said. “They would not have been on site until 6am.”

However, she said she called an ABF manager to “notify them the vessel is coming in earlier” and told them that two passengers needed immediate ambulance transfers to hospital.

But the inquiry heard the previous day that the Covid-19 test results from the swabs were delayed by 16 hours because the laboratory did not prioritise them.

On Wednesday Beasley told the inquiry that after the delay, the swabs were put through testing and the results came back at 8am on 20 March.

The inquiry, overseen by Bret Walker SC, continues on Friday.


Naaman Zhou

The GuardianTramp

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