Australian Border Force has blamed New South Wales Health for giving the Ruby Princess the green light to dock in Sydney, saying it was state authorities who decided not to send any health officers to the ship to check passengers for Covid-19.
In a forthright press conference, the force’s commissioner, Michael Outram, said ABF’s responsibilities for border control did not extend to health checks.
But the NSW government is still insisting it was federal authorities who categorised the cruise ship carrying 2,700 people as “low risk”, resulting in the release of a major wave of 133 infections in the Australian community.
In what is proving a catastrophe amid efforts to curb the spread of Covid-19 in Australia, politicians have expressed outrage that the system failed to isolate the Ruby Princess passengers and crew.
When it docked in Sydney on 19 March, three passengers and one crew member were displaying flu-like symptoms and had been swabbed. One was taken by ambulance to hospital and subsequently died of Covid-19. But passengers were permitted to disembark and make their way home, including flying overseas, with warnings to self-isolate for 14 days.
The Australian reported on Wednesday that the NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, had told a gathering of state colleagues that ABF officials had erroneously advised NSW Health that the ship was low risk.
At a press conference on Wednesday, Berejiklian said stopping transmission was a joint responsibility.
“Every single agency needs to take responsibility for our borders,” she said. “Whether it’s a ship at a port, whether it’s a planeload of people coming in from overseas. We’re still having thousands of people coming in on planes every single day.
“All authorities have to step up, including NSW Health, including all the other authorities involved.
“What is really imperative at this time, we realised, is strong communication between authorities and everybody stepping up.”
The state’s chief health officer, Dr Kerry Chant, said New Zealand had checked the ship in Wellington and found no cases of Covid-19. But once NSW authorities had recognised that coronavirus was on the ship they had followed up on all of the passengers.
She said there was “no action that NSW Health could have taken to prevent those people acquiring the disease”, as they had acquired it on the ship.
She stressed that all passengers had been asked to self-isolate and that any cases identified were being “ringfenced”.
Most people began showing symptoms on the day of disembarkation and in subsequent days, she said, and NSW Health were working incredibly hard to limit onward transmission.
“If we had had any suspicion, we would have deployed health teams,” Chant said.
The department had contingency plans in place if an outbreak were identified.
“Of course, with hindsight, we would have acted differently, had we known we had a Covid-positive cruise ship.”
Chant said she would look into reports that passengers were not given instructions to self-isolate when they disembarked, noting that this was an ABF responsibility as its officers processed passengers.
She defended allowing overseas passengers to fly home, as this was part of the agreed protocol to send them into self-isolation at home. Tracing of people sitting in rows around infected passengers was being conducted, she said.
A week earlier Scott Morrison announced a 30-day ban on foreign cruise ships docking in Australia but the government made an exemption for four already on their way, including the Ruby Princess.
Three of these ships have subsequently been found to be carrying people infected with Covid-19. Passengers were permitted to disembark with the standard advice that they should self-isolate for 14 days when they reached home.
The federal government has also issued new biosecurity orders.
Outram provided what he said was the timeline of interactions between the ship and NSW Health.
He said ABF’s responsibilities were confined to checking passports and ensuring that customs regulations were complied with, while the federal Department of Agriculture was responsible for biosecurity checks.
“On the 17 March, 2020, NSW Health requested the following information from the Ruby Princess’s senior doctor: estimates of arrival into Sydney, a log of details of passengers and crew presenting with fever or acute respiratory symptoms or both, travel histories, and whether tests were conducted and the results,” Outram said.
“On March 18, at 9.39am the senior doctor on the Ruby Princess notified the health department with the following: they had collected viral swabs for a few cases of febrile influenza, negative test, and that those people had been isolated. They also requested a transfer for other passengers who had unrelated illnesses.”
“On March 18 2020, at 5.17pm, they stated: ‘The NSW Health panel assessed the Ruby Princess as not requiring onboard health assessment in Sydney.’”
He said NSW Health had requested that Ruby Princess send the 15 samples to a NSW Health lab for Covid-19 testing and to attach lab forms as required.
“NSW Health stated to the Ruby Princess, ‘You are free to disembark tomorrow. However, in accordance with the Australian government guidance, all passengers must go into self-isolation for 14 days,’” Outram said.
He went on to say that on 18 March the Department of Agriculture was informed through Ruby Princess that a risk assessment had been conducted and that the ship was considered “low risk”. This is consistent with NSW Health’s version of events.
“NSW Health decided not to board the vessel and attend, and that they had also given clearance for all passengers to disembark the vessel,” Outram said. “That red light has just gone green. So, the vessel came into port on March 19.
“They felt the vessel was low risk and there was no need to attend the vessel, but our six officers wore masks and gloves nonetheless.”
He said protocols required any vessel coming into Australia’s waters from overseas to provide 96 hours’ notice for any disease. He said this had worked well for ships docking in Victoria and Western Australia, which had sent state health authorities to board them.
Labor’s spokeswoman on immigration, Kristina Keneally, said the Ruby Princess fiasco would prove to be a tipping point in Covid-19’s spread in Australia.
“We have now 133 passengers and counting from the Ruby Princess cruise ship that have tested positive for coronavirus,” she said. “The Ruby Princess cruise ship coronavirus cases account for 10% of the cases in NSW. And, quite tragically, there has already been one death.”
This was despite the prime minister announcing there would be no more cruise ships arriving in Australia, she said.
“They went into taxis and public transport, they interacted with friends and neighbours, they went to shops, they were allowed to travel across the country,” she said.
“It is gobsmacking that we are in this circumstance today. We need to ask, we need to demand to know how this happened and we need to ensure it does not happen again. The Australian government needs to get on top of this situation very quickly.”