The Ruby Princess cruise ship off the coast of Sydney (Image: AAP/Joel Carrett)

If you are the senior doctor on the Ruby Princess and you are asked why you didn’t give health authorities a complete list of passengers with possible COVID-19 symptoms until the day after they left the ship, do you answer:

A: I had all the information but decided to keep it to myself

B: I discussed it with the company’s management and they said I should keep it to myself, or

C: I had the information but I was crazy-busy the day we were docking and I forgot to pass it on. Sorry!

None of these are good options when you are fronting an official inquiry into the actions of the major cruise line that employs you.

In Dr Ilse von Watzdorf’s case, option C is the correct answer: a stuff-up rather than a deliberate attempt to deceive  — an important distinction given the various civil actions and criminal investigations which threaten to entangle the doctor, the Ruby Princess and Carnival corporation.

Thus began the Special Commission of Inquiry into the Ruby Princess under commissioner Bret Walker, SC. The commission started earlier than planned because the ship, with key witnesses such as von Watzdorf on board, was due to set sail.

Oh, you mean COVID-19?  Why didn’t you say?

As far as early revelations go, the evidence was gobsmacking. In rapid fire it emerged that:

  • The ship denied any crew member was showing COVID-19 symptoms in the hours before it docked, even though one crew member had a high fever. The doctor answered that she wasn’t sure if she knew  of the crew member’s condition before or after the ship made its declaration, which turned out to be false.
  • The ship failed to declare in an official pre-embarkation form that there were passengers coughing on board the ship — another COVID-19 symptom. Von Watzdorf accepted they should have checked that box and couldn’t explain why they hadn’t.
  • Though in charge of health on board the Ruby Princess, von Watzdorf said she hadn’t received any information from the company about the COVID-19 cases that had infected the company’s Diamond Princess off the coast of Japan in February — at the time the largest source of COVID-19 outside China. The doctor said she had gained her information “from some of what’s in social media”. “I did not have any scientific detail behind it, if that’s the correct term to use,” she said. Nor had she ever had a discussion with the doctor from the Diamond Princess.
  • The doctor couldn’t remember whether or not she had mentioned that two sick passengers could have COVID-19 when she sent a request to NSW emergency services to provide ambulances. She might have asked that the ambulance workers wear protective equipment because, well, you never know.

Inq’s coverage of the unfolding Ruby Princess scandal has highlighted the chequered past of the ship’s owners, the Miami-based Carnival Corporation, when it comes to obeying rules and regulations.

Inq has also flagged the possibility several times — without answer from the company — that the owners of the Ruby Princess had reason to obscure the truth from NSW health authorities in order to disembark passengers rather than hold them in quarantine. 

Commissioner Bret Walker went to the key issue of whether or not the doctor had indeed discussed the disembarkation question with the company. “I can’t recall having a conversation. Did I have one?” the ship’s doctor asked. “I’m not sure. I can’t recall.”

Now Carnival’s damage control operation is in full swing.

At the outset, the counsel for Princess cruises applied to have the commission of inquiry’s evidence heard in secret. That was refused by the commissioner. 

Next, when Inq went looking for more information on von Watzdorf, it was discovered that her online past had simply disappeared. Twitter account? Closed. Facebook page? No longer available. LinkedIn? Account not there.

It appears that someone has come in and scrubbed the joint clean. If there were indiscretions from years past then they wouldn’t be easily found.

Earlier this week Inq was given a heads-up from an unhappy “cruiseling” who passed on a letter sent to Ruby Princess passengers from the US-based head of the Princess line, Jan Swartz.

Swartz’ letter walks a fine line between expressing regret about the Ruby Princess disaster without using the always fraught “sorry”, which might imply an admission of guilt. 

The letter’s punchline was that the company was now offering all passengers on the Ruby Princess a “full 100% refund” on the fare they’d paid, given the horrors that had unfolded.

The decision to give passengers a refund was a significant increase on the company’s first offer to passengers, made on March 17 as the Ruby Princess closed in on Sydney — an offer for a partial return of the fare or an option for a cruise on another day.

The sender, who wishes to remain anonymous, has pointed out to Inq that Carnival’s new offer coincides with the ship leaving Australia — a bad look.

“It’s a purposely placed spin,” our informant concluded.

A spokesperson for Carnival rejected the suggestion that there was any sinister motive behind the company’s increased monetary offer.

“We have a direct relationship of trust with our guests many of whom have cruised with us numerous times over many years. Our communication with them is guided by the depth of this relationship nothing more,” the spokesperson said.

Ultimately no one knew more about the health of passengers on board the Ruby Princess than von Watzdorf, who has worked on Princess ships for five years. The doctor conceded she was surprised that health authorities allowed passengers to disembark immediately without screening and without waiting for the results of swabs, given what she knew of the health issues on board. 

In the doctor’s view, getting passengers screened was “not [her] decision to make”. Nor, apparently, did von Watzdorf make any attempt to blow the whistle as passengers she suspected of being infected trooped off the boat and into the wider world.

It raises a key, unanswered question about the independence of a ship’s doctor.

Where does a doctor’s duty lie? To the patient and the community? Or to the company that pays their salary and is looking for as much business as it can get?