NSW Gladys Berejiklian abortion bill leadership spill
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian (Image: AAP /Mick Tsikas)

As the scale of the Ruby Princess COVID-19 outbreak was dawning on NSW health authorities over the weekend, one Australian woman was blissfully unaware on a long-haul flight from Sydney to London.

Her story, told in a series of tweets makes alarming reading:

The woman’s story points to a potential spread of COVID-19 from the Ruby Princess way beyond Australia’s shores, with passengers heading on to a dozen different countries. 

It underscores a breakdown in enforcement by Australian Border Force (ABF) officials, evident in a number of accounts gathered by Crikey.

And it reflects an overarching complaint from Ruby Princess passengers: from the beginning no one was made aware of the risk of exposure to the virus. It was only 24 hours after the trip was completed that passengers were told.

That’s what happened to an Adelaide family of four, now in self-isolation after leaving the Ruby Princess last Thursday morning and returning to their Adelaide home via a Virgin Airlines flight from Sydney. 

Parents Kim and Bernie, who asked to withhold their family name for fear of a social media backlash, told Crikey that the lack of information started before the cruise ship left Sydney for New Zealand.

The family flew to Sydney in time to board the Ruby Princess just after noon on March 8. Then the texts started from the Princess company, notifying all passengers there was a delay.

First, they were asked to come back at 1pm. Then 2.30pm. Then 5pm. Finally the more than 2700 passengers started to embark at around 7pm, according to Kim and Bernie.  

The texts gave no detailed reasons for the delay. Kim told Crikey that passengers were finally told that NSW Health had wanted to screen passengers from a previous trip and make sure the ship was properly cleaned before giving the go-ahead for boarding.

But what hope of scrubbing the Ruby Princess completely clean?

Kim, Bernie and their family — as well as, presumably, other passengers boarding the Ruby Princess — had no idea of what had transpired on the ship before they boarded.

The Australian has since reported that more than 150 passengers who had disembarked from the Ruby Princess that day had been reported as sick (the numbers are disputed by NSW Health). Two of those passengers travelled on to the Northern Territory and have since tested positive to COVID-19.

And this week the US Centres for Disease Control (CDC) published a study demonstrating how hard it is to scrub surfaces clean of the virus.

The CDC established that traces of the novel coronavirus had been found in the cabins on the Diamond Princess cruise ship — the Ruby Princess‘ sister ship which had been stranded off the coast of Japan for a month — up to 17 days after passengers left.

Once on board, Kim and Bernie say, the virus barely rated a mention. “No-one ever said anyone had an infection,” Kim said. They were not aware that anyone on board had been tested during the cruise.

Nor did they know, upon disembarking the ship last Thursday, that one of their number — a woman in her 70s — had been taken from the Ruby Princess and wheeled into a waiting NSW ambulance at 2.30am. (“Not with the flu but in full respiratory distress,” Kim said, quoting a subsequent news report.)

Yet by 7.30 that same morning the Adelaide family of four along with all passengers were free to leave the ship — with plenty of close hugs from the ship’s staff but no health check.

Kim and Bernie, who are cruise veterans, said they had never gone through customs faster in all their travels.

Crikey has also learnt of the case of a NSW man in his early 80s who fell ill after three days onboard the Ruby Princess and was placed in the ship’s hospital. 

A relative who asked for privacy told Crikey that neither the man nor his partner were told of any incidents of illness before boarding, nor were they informed of any risks or other unusual illnesses by the crew.

“I feel lucky that they made it back alive,” the relative said. “In my opinion the whole thing has been handled with negligence and gross incompetence.”  The man and his partner have since tested negative.

Crikey has collected stories from other passengers, also unwilling to have their names used.

“We got a lot of ‘I don’t know’,” said one passenger. “We were told no-one was ill so we continued to use the shared dinner spaces and other spaces as normal.”

In another case an elderly couple was transported from the Ruby Princess direct to an aged care facility in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. A woman familiar with the couple texted a friend, who shared it with her permission: 

[They] just got off the Ruby Princess Cruise Ship and were not tested. Apparently none of the 3000 people on board were tested and now they’ve been let loose! Faark!!!

So what’s the legal position for the Ruby Princess‘ owners, Carnival Cruises? 

Crikey‘s legal commentator Michael Bradley says there are two potential legal issues.

One is the prosecution risk for Princess and its directors/executives if it turns out that they allowed people on board a ship that presented a known or reasonably foreseeable health or safety risk to passengers and crew, under workplace health and safety laws,” he said. “If they downplayed the risk or gave information to authorities that was incomplete or misleading, they could be in very serious trouble.

The second issue is civil liability, either for Princess or the government, Bradley said.

“While I have no idea why anyone would have gotten on a cruise ship on 8 March, the law wouldn’t put an onus on those who did,” he said. “At that time, the government was allowing it to happen and travelers would have been entitled to rely on that as a basic assurance that it would be safe.

“If, in reality, there were factors that the authorities or company were aware of or should have been aware of that made it unsafe, ie created a likelihood of risk that passengers would get infected, then they’re going to be liable for whatever losses flow from that.”

The blame game surrounding the Ruby Princess disaster has escalated. On the weekend NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard finally conceded that officials should not have let passengers leave the ship.

“If I had my opportunity to have my two bob’s worth, with the benefit of what we now know about those … people, I’d have said yeah, maybe we should hold them on the ship,” he said.

According to a report in The Australian today, though, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian is blaming the Federal government and the Australian Border Force (ABF). 

ABF Commissioner Michael Outram this morning denied his officers were to blame for the debacle and laid responsibility at the door of New South Wales Health who made the decisions on health and bio security.

“What broke down in this case was, health officers, trained doctors or nurses didn’t get on board the vessel, swab passengers and take their swabs for results,” he said. “And had that occurred in this case, what happened wouldn’t have happened.”

Outram also revealed that though NSW Health had assessed the vessel as low-risk, six ABF officers wore masks and gloves when they boarded the ship.

But what of the company responsible for the ship and its passengers?  How much did they tell officials?

Earlier this week The Australian Financial Review reported that Carnival company doctors had briefed NSW Health officials telling them that 13 people were ill out of 2647 passengers and 1148 crew. 

“Some” of the 13 apparently had influenza. “Five people with the flu had already been tested for COVID-19 in Wellington and come up clean,” it reported.  Thirteen was “a very small number,” Hazzard was quoted as saying.

The first death, yesterday, of a Ruby Princess passenger now places those numbers under question. How could no one on board be sick, according to the company, yet a woman die inside a week of disembarking?

Crikey asked Carnival if the information as reported in the AFR was accurate and if no one on board was ill then how Carnival accounted for a woman being taken away by ambulance at 2.30am after the ship docked.

Crikey asked Carnival to respond to the implication that the company had withheld information from authorities and to answer claims that it had withheld information from passengers. 

We have received no response.

Whatever the truth of those numbers, they have now ballooned to over 130 people infected in NSW and interstate and who knows how many internationally — and one dead: the anonymous woman in her 70s who was dragged out of the Ruby Princess in the middle of the night by ambulance workers in full protective clothing.

The Ruby Princess passenger is the second Princess line passenger from Australia to die after a 78-year-old Perth man died in February after returning from the Diamond Princess and being placed in isolation. 

Meanwhile, the Ruby Princess sits off the NSW coast with around 1000 crew on board — a different story to the Diamond Princess which was required to keep thousands of passengers on board off the coast of Japan in February, an event that triggered a cataclysmic drop in the company’s share price from US$50 at the beginning of the year to US$10 on March 19.

Peter Fray

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