The harsh questioning of a NSW Health Official during the Ruby Princess cruise special commission of inquiry was “out of line,” Scott Morrison says.
The prime minister told 2GB on Wednesday he found footage of senior epidemiologist Kelly-Anne Ressler breaking down in tears during proceedings “very distressing.”
On Tuesday, footage captured Ms Ressler crying after Commissioner Bret Walker SC suggested there'd been a "reprehensible shortcoming" by the department when Ruby Princess passengers were allowed to disembark in Sydney on March 19.
"All I can say is that I'm very sorry it turned out the way it did, it was not our intention," she replied as she fought back tears.
"Myself and my colleagues at the public health unit were working very hard on this. We did what we could, and if we could do it again it would be very different."
Mr Morrison told 2GB he was “very proud” of Australia’s public servants, “including this young woman”.
“To see her reduced to that under that sort of aggressive line of questioning… you’ve got to get the balance right on this one, and I would hope Mr Walker would reflect on that,” he said.
Virus-stricken Ruby Princess was deemed low-risk
Ms Ressler – coordinator of the department's cruise ship health program – told the commission an expert health panel had been created specifically to look into the risks of COVID-19 earlier in 2020.
Although not part of the panel, she was involved in providing "assistance and suggestions" towards a draft protocol document, which was released on February 19.
The protocol suggested all passengers visit a ship's medical centre if they had respiratory symptoms and a fever, with isolation to follow.
But, Ms Ressler said, while a ship was at sea she had "no jurisdiction" to control what actions were taken.
Ruby Princess linked to at least 20 COVID-19 deaths
Some 2700 passengers were allowed to disembark on March 19 and the ship has since been linked to more than 20 coronavirus deaths and 600 infections across Australia.
The federal department overseeing biosecurity arrangements has said NSW Health "advised there were no issues preventing disembarkation".
The commission was told after the ship arrived into Sydney early on March 19, the swabs from sick passengers were "put into the queue as per normal" for COVID-19 testing rather than being expedited.
"My understanding is the technician didn't realise they were cruise ship samples ... and they were not tested as a priority," Ms Ressler said.
The ship had been deemed low-risk by an expert health panel after 0.94 per cent of people on board presented to the medical centre with relevant flu-like symptoms.
In order to be deemed a greater risk in line with the state's draft guidelines, it needed to be equal to or greater than 1 per cent to indicate an outbreak had occurred.
The inquiry heard throughout the hearing there were low swab availabilities aboard the ship, as documented in messages shared between Ms Ressler and the onboard doctor.
Mr Beasley on Tuesday said the Ruby Princess's permission to dock in Sydney was initially cancelled by the NSW Port Authority on March 19.
Special commission continues
He stated someone from Australian Border Force called the duty harbour master to discuss "turning the ship around and sending it back to sea".
But a short time later, the same ABF person called the master and said it could proceed to Circular Quay.
The special commission will continue to hear evidence on Wednesday and Friday and is expected to deliver its final report by mid-August.
A separate Senate inquiry into the Ruby Princess began on Tuesday in Canberra while a NSW Police criminal probe is also underway.
The Ruby Princess on Tuesday was off the east coast of the southern Philippines island of Mindanao en-route to Manila.
A Princess Cruises spokesman said it's expected to arrive in Manilla on Thursday and "a determination will then be made for the repatriation of Filipino crew in consultation with authorities in the Philippines".
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