NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian told a confidential partyroom meeting on Tuesday that Australian Border Force officials were responsible for a catastrophic decision to release 2700 cruise ship passengers into the community, and that the agency should wear the blame for the risk of contagion unfolding in various states.
Source: Yoni Bashan, News Corp
Coronavirus: Border Force blamed for Ruby Princess cruise ship disaster
Ms Berejiklian made the remarks as it emerged one passenger from the Ruby Princess died on Tuesday morning and at least 133 others had become infected with the virus — including one NSW man, Greg Butler, 56, who left the ship, travelled for six hours on public transport to Tamworth, and then fell ill days later while in quarantine. He is being treated in an isolation ward in hospital.
Passengers from the ship dispersed across the country and overseas after passing through the Overseas Passenger Terminal at Sydney’s Circular Quay without being screened for the virus or having their passports checked.
At least 20 per cent of the passengers were US residents, and another 17 per cent — about 200 people — were from a “variety of other countries”, NSW Health said in a statement.
Graded “low risk” by health officials on arrival, the cruise ship has become one of the largest single sources of coronavirus infections in the country, and has intensified scrutiny of the Berejiklian government at a time of heightened concern around the rapid transmission of COVID-19.
After the ship docked, passengers were granted permission to disembark before coronavirus testing of 13 flu swabs had been completed, sparking disbelief in the community and a demand for clarity over an apparently drastic breakdown of procedure.
The Australian can also reveal that the master of the Ruby Princess allegedly told Australian Border Force officials there were no sick people on board the ship as it pulled into Sydney, raising questions as to why an ambulance was on standby to transport a passenger — the woman who died — when the vessel docked at 2.29am.
Several state government MPs confirmed to The Australian that Ms Berejiklian, who has made no public remarks about the Ruby Princess, lay the blame for the entire fiasco with the ABF during Tuesday’s partyroom meeting.
The Premier said ABF officials instructed NSW Health to release the 2647 passengers because no one was known to have flu symptoms. This is despite 13 flu tests having been conducted onboard the ship in the preceding days, and five tests for COVID-19 that were conducted in New Zealand and returned negative for the virus.
Part of the breakdown in communication can be traced back to the ship. As the Ruby Princess pulled into Sydney, its crew advised the ABF there were no unwell passengers on board, a fact confirmed to The Australian by a federal official with knowledge of the matter.
The ABF did not respond to a request for comment and neither did Carnival Australia, the company that owns the ship.
More than 30 hours after the ship’s arrival and dispersal of passengers, health officials discovered the 13 flu swabs they had run through testing were positive for four cases for COVID-19 — three passengers and a crew member.
Eleven of the passengers have since been confirmed with the virus in Western Australia; nine reside in Queensland; three in Tasmania; two in the Northern Territory, and one in the ACT, according to NSW Health data.
Some passengers are now seeking legal advice against the government and the cruise ship operator. Shine Lawyers issued a statement on Tuesday saying it was investigating legal avenues on behalf of people on the ship who had made contact.
The Premier also took aim at the ABF’s lackadaisical screening policies, pointing to plane loads of people who disembark at airports without any vetting for possible flu symptoms.
“She said it wasn’t our failing — it was the feds,” said one MP who was at the meeting. A second MP, confirming the Premier’s remarks, described her response as an “arse-covering exercise”.
NSW Labor called for an intensification of screening at all ports and queried why an ambulance was on standby when the ship arrived, apparently when no one was reporting ill on board.
The ambulance was on hand to retrieve the woman who died on Tuesday morning, NSW Health said in a statement.
“The government have failed us here in NSW. It has been a colossal stuff-up. They have allowed people to just come and go, in and out of this port,” Labor deputy leader Yasmin Catley said.
Amid the blame game erupting between the federal government and NSW, concerns remain as to how passengers came to be let off the ship before testing for COVID-19 had been completed.
NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard told The Australian that, at the time that there was no hint of the virus being on board the ship. NSW Health ordered testing of the 13 flu swabs as a precautionary measure after being advised that some patients had shown respiratory issues.
The ship’s doctor could test for influenza-like illnesses, but not COVID-19, Mr Hazzard said.
But ultimately, Mr Hazzard added, NSW Health staff were acting in line with federal government protocols. Testing of swabs taken at sea are not compulsory under the protocols, and NSW Health has insisted for days that its procedures exceed those specified for cruise ships.
“Personally, I think the federal guidance is very lacking in appropriate directions. But I understand that every day, everybody is just trying to keep up with fast-changing circumstances,” Mr Hazzard said.
The guidelines in NSW have since been updated for cruise ships, eight more of which are due to arrive this week. They will now be held at port if COVID-19 tests are conducted, in anticipation of the results, even if it means passengers miss connecting flights.