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Sydney cruise terminal

Australian lines call up their own medical expert to challenge “zero risk” policy as cruise ban stays

Australia’s cruise industry faced another setback when the government extended its ban on international cruise ships for another three months to September 17. But the lines are set to use a top medical expert to try and change Canberra’s mind.

Health Minister Greg Hunt confirmed that the human biosecurity emergency period, which has been in place since March 17, 2020, would be extended from June 17 until September 17, 2021  – effectively closing the borders to foreign travellers and ship’s crews, as well as stopping Australians going abroad except under special circumstances.

The extension is based on “specialist medical and epidemiological advice provided by the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) and the Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer.”

The news was greeted with “great disappointment”, with Cruise Lines International Association Australasia Managing Director Joel Katz saying it had expected that the government would announce a pathway forward for sailings to resume first, so the industry would know what needed to be done to resume sailings.

He pointed out that Tourism Minister Dan Tehan had made statements which appeared to indicate an easing might be on the cards, and that there was understanding in government circles about the plight of cruise, and the businesses associated with it who were enduring terrible disruption. Instead, after almost a year of regular meetings with health and other officials, there was no direction from the federal government, leaving talks with the states and territories virtually stalled.

To add to the industry’s pain, NSW yesterday revealed it was planning to allow a fortnightly flight of foreign students into the state to rescue hard pressed universities.

The Cruise industry will now ask the government’s health advisers to meet with Dr Ian Norton, the founder and managing director of Respond Global and former head of WHO’s Emergency Medical Team Initiative in Geneva from 2014 to 2020, where he led responses to the Ebola, diphtheria and measles outbreaks in various countries.

Dr Norton is also an external expert advising several cruise lines on their health and safety protocols,  include Coral Expeditions, Ponant, Aurora Expeditions, APT and MSC.

Dr Norton told Cruise Passenger: “I do think there are differing medical views here. There is a zero risk approach being taken, but we firmly believe the measures and extra controls put in place for cruising domestically by the industry are very robust, and bring risk to very acceptable measures even now, and this will further strengthen as the population continues to get vaccinated.

“The expedition cruising by Coral have shown us its possible and safe here in Australia, and we are proud to support MSC who have passed 60,000 passengers since last August. We are interested to ensure those providing medical advice to the Minister are fully across the industry’s commitments and  health protocols and their ability to mitigate risk.”

APT will this week begin sailings in The Kimberley aboard the foreign-flagged Caledonian Sky after being forced to recruit 30 Australian hospitality workers in a market, as Mr Katz pointed out, where such staff were in desperately short supply.

Four other cruise lines with bookings for the region  – Ponant, Scenic, Silversea and Aurora – have not been given permission to sail, and have had to refund passengers at enormous cost to local tourism operators.

The news that the ban would continue was greeted with dismay by Cruise Passenger’s Facebook audience, with over 30 comments in favour of a cruise resumption.

Anne Harris said: “The Cruising Industry needs to restart the government doesn’t understand all the precautions the companies have in place onboard the ships now since COVID 19.  You can go to the footy and cinema and restaurants, but not go on a Cruise.”

Over 44,000 Australians have sent MPs messages calling on the government to release a plan to restart cruise as part of a CLIA Ready.Set.Sail campaign.

Mr Katz called on the Federal Government to take real steps towards establishing a plan for future cruise operations, saying the government’s lack of a plan for the future was causing lasting damage to the economy and putting 18,000 Australian jobs in doubt.

“After months of discussions with government, the suspension has been extended again without any clear route from government towards a careful and responsible resumption of cruising,” Mr Katz said.

“The cruise industry has done an enormous amount of work to implement extensive new health protocols globally, but Australia is now the only major cruise destination in the world where there is no progress towards their adoption.”

Mr Hunt said in a statement: “The AHPPC has advised that the international COVID-19 situation continues to pose an unacceptable risk to public health. The extension of the emergency period is an appropriate response to that risk.”

What this means

  • mandatory pre-departure testing and mask wearing for international flights
  • restrictions on the entry of cruise vessels within Australian territory
  • restrictions on outbound international travel for Australians

The minister maintained the Government will continue to consult with the States, Territories and the maritime industry “on options for the staged resumption of cruising when the medical advice is that it is safe to do so.”

But the disappointment after so many months of talks was palpable.

“The cruise industry is not asking for special treatment or to simply reopen the doors to cruising. We’ve presented some of the most stringent COVID-19 measures to be found anywhere in tourism, developed with the support of medical experts and we governments to take the next steps forward,” Mr Katz said.

He said that extension of the cruise ban will cause further damage to the economy – up to $6 billion loss since March 2020 – and put 18,000 Australians jobs in doubt including travel agents, tour operators, farmers, food suppliers and transport providers.

“It is now time to break the cycle of inaction in Australia and finalise the pathway forward,” he stressed.