NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard was thrust into a fiery exchange with a reporter on Saturday morning after being quizzed over the handling of the Ruby Princess cruise ship debacle amid the coronavirus crisis.
Mr Hazzard was asked if his resignation would be “on the table” following the controversial decision by NSW Health to allow thousands of passengers off the cruise in Sydney, despite some showing flu symptoms at the time.
To date there have been 342 confirmed cases of COVID-19 diagnosed in passengers linked to the Ruby Princess and a number of deaths.
The health minister defended the department’s decision to allow the cruise to dock at Circular Quay and allow passengers to disembark as usual after they had deemed the threat “low risk”.
“Can I just say that the experts who made the decision were the best in the world, and the appropriate thing at this point is for the investigation to continue,” Mr Hazzard said.
“Each of the staff of the Chief Health Officer made the decision to the best of their ability. And those people are experts in their field.”
Emails show NSW Health knew of COVID-19 threat
On Friday night, Nine News revealed emails that appeared to confirm NSW Health knew COVID-19 was possibly being carried by passengers on board the Ruby Princess.
NSW Health emailed staff on the cruise two days before it was due in Sydney, and requested a list of passenger names and anyone presenting with a fever or flu symptoms.
The following day, the Ruby Princess identified two people with upper respiratory tract infections who required urgent transfer to hospital.
The doctor from the cruise later emailed NSW Health saying they had performed viral swabs on passengers and results showed they were negative for influenza.
NSW Health responded saying passengers were free to disembark and an on-board health assessment was not required, but asked samples collected by the doctor to be sent to the NSW Health lab for COVID-19 testing.
Mr Hazzard was persistently pressed on Saturday morning about the process of his department’s decision making by a reporter, who he described as “enthusiastic”, appearing frustrated at having to repeat himself.
“Actually, if you wouldn't mind showing a reasonable level of courtesy, thank you very much,” Mr Hazzard hit back.
#LIVE: NSW Minister for Health and Medical Research, Brad Hazzard, and NSW Chief Health Officer, Dr Kerry Chant are providing an update on the current status of COVID-19 in NSW. #9News https://t.co/MsDjIjYODu— Nine News Australia (@9NewsAUS) April 4, 2020
NSW Chief Health Officer addresses why passengers disembarked
NSW Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant explained that while there had been influenza circulating on the cruise ship, cases did not reach “outbreak” level and thus did not trigger a more cautious approach.
“There was nothing to suggest that COVID-19 was suspected by the doctor on the ship,” she said.
“If we look at the date of onset of symptoms of the people on the cruise ship, the vast majority had to be onset after departing the cruise ship.”
Mr Hazzard pleaded with the public to be “temperate and careful” before leaping to criticise those working on the coronavirus front line, saying Dr Chant last Saturday worked a 32-hour shift before addressing media.
“People don't do that unless they have extraordinary commitment to all of us,” he said.
“Those who are leaping to criticise, take a step back and realise that we need every one of these people who have done every possible thing they could do to keep us safe.”
Dr Chant explained that had the risk level been deemed “medium”, the entire process would have been handled differently, but given it was “low” the priority was to get passengers off as soon as possible.
“Because while they were on the cruise ship, they were at risk of onward transmission amongst themselves,” she said.
“The process is that the risk assessment of the ship was that it was a low risk assessment and the protocol is different for different categories of risk. So everybody was allowed to disembark.
“When we found out COVID-19 was detected in three of the retained swabs, we then initiated contact with everyone. We sent them an SMS immediately.”
Tweaks to social distancing rules
Earlier in the press conference, Mr Hazzard detailed some adjustments that had been made to social distancing measures.
He said the previous limit of 10 people total allowed present at a funeral, including staff, had now been softened to allow 10 people in addition to staff.
When it came to caravan parks, Mr Hazzard clarified they could be used by overnight travellers, people working in the local area and people whose primary places of residence were temporarily unavailable.
Following upset over truck stops being closed to the use of long-haul drivers, he also said these facilities would be re-opened for use and appropriately managed by operators.
The health minister also noted a shifting pattern in Australians towards better adherence to social distancing rules.
“What I have seen and what the health officials are now seeing is, since basically last Saturday, there has been a remarkable taking on a responsibility by all of us.”
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