The Australian Border Force Commissioner said it was NSW Health who gave the green light for 2700 passengers to disembark from the Ruby Princess cruise in Sydney last week despite coronavirus test results of several people being unknown.
A woman in her 70s from the cruise ship died on Tuesday while more than a hundred others were found to test positive after being allowed back into the community without knowledge of the ship’s possible coronavirus cases.
Commissioner Michael Outram responded to widespread frustration at the approximate 2700 passengers leaving the ship freely after it docked at Circular Quay on Thursday last week.
He told reporters NSW Health told staff on board the Ruby Princess that passengers were “free to disembark”, and would need to begin 14 days of mandatory self isolation when they arrived home. But the passengers only got contacted about the request to self-isolate after disembarking.
On arrival into Sydney, NSW Health conducted a pre-risk assessment of the ship, and “regarded it as low risk”, Mr Outram said, despite it being told earlier that day that 13 passengers had been isolated with flu-like symptoms.
He added the health department informed cruise staff they did not need to attend or board the vessel before it arrived in Sydney, and all passengers were cleared to disembark.
In clarifying who had the responsibility for letting passengers off the ship, Mr Outram said:
“The decision to allow them off in relation to the health and bio security issue was one of the NSW Health.
“Did they fail? I'm not here to apportion blame, we are all here together in Australia.”
There have since been 107 cases diagnosed in NSW from the Ruby Princess and 26 cases interstate.
Angry Australians expressed their frustration after passengers were permitted to roam free through the community after travelling on the cruise.
‘It’s beggars belief’
Adelaide passengers Bernie, Kim and Phil said they found out more than 24 hours after disembarking the cruise that they could be at risk.
“We are still quite incensed that the NSW health department let us off the ship if they knew that some people had been tested,” Kim told The Today Show.
“The fact that we got off the ship, picked up our luggage and pretty much got deposited on the sidewalk outside of the terminal so quickly - it’s beggars belief.”
Mr Outram was quizzed on whether it was necessary for either the ABF or NSW Health to issue an apology to the public, given that someone had died and more than 100 became ill.
He was hesitant to offer a concrete answer, instead explaining why he was not in a position to do so.
He did however express his opinion that health departments should always be on site to assess the risk in person whenever a cruise or cargo ship arrived at an Australian port.
“If there is any doubt whatsoever about the wellness or well-being of crew or passengers on a cruise ship, or a cargo ship, that before those people are let off they should be, I think, a presence at the ship by the department of health,” he said.
Change sparked by bungled process
Following the Ruby Princess incident, Mr Outram told reporters additional measures had been adopted to ensure the outcome would not be repeated.
He said workers from the health department would now be required on scene when a ship arrived, like when the Golden Princess arrived in Melbourne last week carrying some passengers with flu-like symptoms.
“Victoria Health were advised by the ship that there were passengers onboard with flulike symptoms. My officers were satisfied that there was no contraband onboard and my officers were satisfied there was nobody onboard with fever problems,” he said.
“But Victoria Health was keen to hold the vessel there because they wanted to board the vessel and take swabs from the passengers.”
He added Victoria Health asked for ABF to hold the crew and passengers inside the vessel until all the results were known.
Once all test results returned negative to COVID-19, everyone was permitted to disembark.
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