A special commission report published Friday finally delivered a verdict on a scandal that has roiled Australia: who is responsible for allowing 2,700 passengers to disembark from the “Ruby Princess” cruise ship after it docked in Sydney in mid-March with more than 100 sick passengers aboard, who later spread the virus across the country.
Surprisingly, the special commission blamed New South Wales Health, the province’s public-health agency, for repeatedly dropping the ball, determining that its failures to ensure new protocols were followed before labeling the ship’s passengers as “low risk”.
The 300+-page report cited “serious errors” made by the health agency, while largely absolving the cruise ship’s doctor and Carnival Cruise subsidiary “Princess Cruises”, even as Carnival faces a criminal probe over its role in exacerbating Australia’s outbreak.
But perhaps the most “inexcusable” mistake was the massive delay in testing the swabs taken from Ruby Princess passengers who showed suspicious symptoms.
“The delay in obtaining test results for the swabs taken from the Ruby Princess on the morning of 19 March is inexcusable,” Commissioner Bret Walker SC said. “Those swabs should have been tested immediately.”
Carnival’s biggest mistake, the report found, were failing to ensure that the ship’s doctor was aware of a Communicable Diseases Network Australia change to its “suspect case” definition on March 10, and failing to ensure there were enough test swabs on board (the ship had only 25, a number that proved woefully inadequate). And since more than 100 cases met this definition by the time passengers disembark in Sydney, the ship should have informed passengers of the risks surrounding them.
Patients with suspicious symptoms should have been quarantined in their cabins, the report found.
“(Carnival) should also have ensured that passengers and crew aboard the Ruby Princess were informed that there were suspect cases of COVID-19 on board,” the inquiry said.
“Those persons meeting the definition of a suspect case should have been required to isolate in their cabins.”
A fact sheet handed to passengers on the day of their disembarkation, which informed that they could immediately travel to other parts of the country, as well as abroad, was also a mistake, the report found.
“The fact sheet linked to an email sent to passengers on March 20 incorrectly advised that they were permitted to continue with onward travel, despite being identified as ‘close contacts’ of a confirmed COVID-19 case,” the inquiry found.
“Although this advice was corrected by NSW Health by the evening of March 21, it was at that stage too late to prevent a considerable number of interstate and international passengers from onward travelling, including some passengers who were symptomatic during transit.”
The results come as Australia’s COVID-19 deaths spike.
Carnival celebrated the report with a statement declaring that the company had been vindicated.
The ship has since been linked to more than 900 coronavirus infections across the globe and 22 Australian deaths.
“The commission’s report confirms that none of our people — the captain, the ship’s doctor, or members of our shore side port agency team — misled public authorities involved in Ruby Princess being permitted to disembark guests on March 19,” the company said.
“In our more than 20 years in Australia, we have always sought to cooperate honestly and professionally with officials in accordance with the regulatory environment.”
“We acknowledge the commission’s specific comments about Carnival and we will consider these comments to the fullest possible extent.”
“Our overriding objective is to ensure cruising is a safe and enjoyable pastime for the millions of people who value exploring the world by sea as their preferred holiday choice.”
As Australia’s progressives try to shift the blame away from local health authorities and toward Prime Minister Scott Morrison, NSW’s premier and the Australian Border Force, they flatly rejected claims that Australian Border force chiefs should have stopped sick passengers leaving the Ruby Princess, insisting it was “not their job” to make health checks, since “if you’re looking for a doctor at the ABF, you won’t find one.”