Ruby Princess and what happened in March last year when she docked in Sydney simply won’t go away.
There has already been a special commission of inquiry led by Brett Walker QC; and a health department inquiry; a police inquiry is still ongoing 17 months after the event; and we have a coroner’s inquiry to go.
That would be four inquiries, not counting any civil litigation.
Last month, it emerged that the Ministry of Agriculture has also held an inquiry, because its agents were tasked with inspecting the ship when she docked on March 19 last year with 2,700 passengers on board, 663 of them COVID positive.
Its conclusions bore a striking resemblance to those of Special Commissioner Walker: it was all the fault of NSW Health.
Now there is no doubt what happened aboard the Ruby Princess needed the most thorough investigation. But it was at the start of the pandemic, when all of us were at our most vulnerable and fearful. We were naïve, blinkered and had no idea what we were dealing with. Today is very different.
Don’t get us wrong. COVID claimed 28 passengers’ lives after they were hastily disembarked from the ship. We certainly needed to learn the lessons of this tragic side story to a global event, which has now killed 4.4 million people and paralysed a planet.
But reading Inspector-General Rob Delane’s findings on behalf of the Ministry of Agriculture is like looking in the rear view mirror of any tragedy. We know so much more now than we did then.
In the words of NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard at the time: “With the benefit of what we now know… I’d have said ‘yeah, maybe we should have held them (the passengers) on the ship.”
Rather obviously, Mr Delane finds there were “major errors and failures to follow procedure”. And indeed there were.
Few will forget the parade of sobbing officials who were cross examined at the special Commission – small cogs in a big wheel, unfamiliar with the spotlight or facing the consequences of their actions.
“Too often, officers and managers use make-do and work-around approaches to deliver something like the desired result. However, those approaches may be inconsistent with the Act and Agriculture’s policies and procedures,” he said.
In laymen’s speak: the people on the dockside thought the idea was to disembark the passengers. So they did.
The Minister for Agriculture David Littleproud was in no doubt about who was to blame. “In essence, the Ruby Princess was a failing of NSW Health,” he said. A year ago, the Special Commission of Inquiry into the Ruby Princess came to the same conclusion.
But here’s the rub.
The sins committed on the night the Ruby Princess docked in Sydney are being replayed every day by those same officials, who now cannot bring themselves to acknowledge that things have changed.
Cruise Passenger has been told by those close to talks with the government that each time agreement on a carefully phased test of cruising in Australia, someone mentions the ship and officials immediately back away, worried they will be blamed should there be a repeat.
But cruise ships today are very different to those of just a year ago. Air purification systems, constant testing, temperature checks, full hospital facilities and, in many cases, fully vaccinated passengers and crew.
And the world’s fleets are already at sea, demonstrating that these measures work. In America, Europe, Asia. In fact in all the great cruising nations – bar the one which once held the record for the highest cruise numbers per head of the population. Yes, Australia.
The Ruby Princess has taught us much. And, by all accounts, the lessons have been learned. It is time to move on.
The government has decided to continue its ban on foreign flagged vessels. The Department of Health said its experts played a big part in that decision.
Have they read any of the reports on how much work has gone into making cruise ships safer than the average hotel? Have they studied the health protocols now in place aboard almost all cruise ships sailing today?
It is time for proper talks to begin. And for the ghost of the Ruby Princess to be laid to rest.
Tens of thousands of jobs and tens of thousands of family holidays rely on the cruise industry being afforded the chance to demonstrate how much work has gone into ensuring ships are the safest place to be.