In week that has seen a Cunard ship turned away from Indonesia and a Princess ship switch from Newcastle to Melbourne, Covid continues to plague the cruise industry’s attempts to return to normality.

Inconsistent government policies mean itineraries are being changed last minute, port-to-home transport is being cancelled and Covid-positive passengers are being kept onboard hours after disembarking.

With passengers becoming increasingly worried – many we spoke to called for clear and consistent guidelines, while a snap poll of readers called for supervised RAT testing to be reinstated – the industry itself maintains Australian vessel regulations are world class.

Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) Australasia told Cruise Passenger: “Australian cruise operations continue to maintain among the most extensive Covid-19 protocols to be found anywhere in world tourism, including testing and vaccination requirements before boarding. These measures go well beyond any remaining requirements in Australian hospitality settings on land.

“Covid-19 cases continue to be managed in line with government requirements and cruise lines are in close ongoing consultation with health authorities as they manage the care of guests and maintain measures in line with current conditions. The experience in cruising internationally has been that the instance of serious illness and hospitalisation due to Covid-19 is rare, and this has also been the case in Australia.

“While this virus is likely to be a continuing presence in our communities for the foreseeable future, CLIA-member cruise lines have a strong track record for effectively managing Covid-19 by making science-driven and medically informed decisions – and continue to have health protocols in place that exceed those of nearly any other venue or travel sector outside of healthcare settings.”

It is true that lines maintain strict measures and Carnival Australia has re-introduced masks.  But there has been some relaxation over the past few months as the community became familiar with the idea of living with Covid.

But as a new surge in the on-shore community unsurprisingly finds its way onto ships, an honesty system for RAT testing before boarding is now being questioned by many passengers – particularly those in Melbourne,  as they disembarked the Grand Princess. At least one claimed a passenger with Covid had knowingly boarded.

The Grand Princess had to cancel its Newcastle stop on its recent Melbourne to Queensland roundtrip.

She was scheduled to sail into the city, but due to a COVID outbreak onboard, Princess Cruises decided not to stop at the Newcastle port and continue onto its final destination of Melbourne.

Hunter New England Local Health District said in a statement: “The Grand Princess was scheduled to dock in Newcastle today, 29 November, but the ship’s operators decided to divert the ship to its port of origin in Melbourne instead.

“Prior to the decision being made, Hunter New England Local Health District’s (HNELHD’s) Public Health Unit had applied the Eastern Seaboard and Western Australian CruiseProtocols, requesting that all passengers be tested prior to disembarkation, having been advised there were a large number of COVID-19 cases on board.”

This would require the more than 2100 guests onboard to test for COVID before disembarking. It was revealed that there was a surge in cases in Newcastle and health facilities were under pressure.

Princess Cruises said: “Grand Princess arrived safely in Melbourne this morning Thursday 1 December, marking the end of her round-trip to Queensland.

“All of the more than 2100 guests disembarked as planned. A small percentage of these guests disembarking in Melbourne are currently COVID positive, and these guests continue to disembark safely and will use private transport to return home.

“Like many tourism operators we too have been impacted by the current fourth wave and have been proactively planning, managing, and caring for COVID cases as they arise onboard.”

AAP reported yesterday that five people were taken to hospital. One was a woman in her eighties. All were reported to be stable.

Mary Luliano was sailing on the Grand Princess with her husband Sergio and was forced to isolate. She told the Herald Sun the events had discouraged her from  cruising for the foreseeable future.

“Sergio caught it first and we both had to isolate, then I caught it to we had to isolate again. We had to isolate twice so we didn’t see anything at all — only the water out the window.”

Another passenger Neil Clough told the Herald Sun that she had a great cruise but also brought up issues with disembarking.

“Part of our group is stuck on-board, and they can’t leave until someone can come and get them privately later in the day.

“We had a fantastic time — a few teething problems with onboarding and getting off, but all in all it was great.”

Ms Clough also said the car companies cancelling transport home from the pier at the last minute proved to be a frustration.

Catherine Bennett, Chair in Epidemiology at Deakin University and a leading voice on COVID previously told Cruise Passenger that she didn’t see COVID on cruise ships as a significant factor in overall community transmission.

“I don’t think it will be a major driver of our community transmission. I know there is concern in remote communities, but equally it’s the trouble when for these communities this is probably their biggest tourist intake.”

Another month on and Ms Bennett maintains that while it’s not necessarily extra dangerous on a ship, there are issues posed by the high levels of transmission in the community.

When the infection rates are higher in the community, that does pose for challenge to the ships.

Some cruise restrictions have increased again, that’s what they need to do, is just be aware of what’s happening. So it’s not extra dangerous necessarily being on a ship but it might actually impact peoples holidays, just as it might, wherever you are if you get caught up in an outbreak.

“So that’s unfortunate while we’re going through a surge but hopefully our numbers are more convincingly going into a plateau.”

When asked whether cruise lines should return to rapid testing before embarking, Ms Bennett said that level of screening still presents challenges and the emphasis is about managing COVID, rather than trying to keep it off the ship.

Rapid testing is difficult, because in the very early stages when you don’t have symptoms, it’s not as efficient as picking up as symptoms anyway and then you’ve got the people who could still be incubating the virus. So you have to live with the reality that you might well have people coming on with symptoms. 

It’s about managing it, rather than trying to keep it off the ship, that’s too difficult.”

Cruise Passenger wrote last week about Viking’s innovative method for testing which involves daily tests from its onboard PCR labs.

While Ms Bennett couldn’t comment on whether this is a viable system for other cruise lines, she highlighted the idea of cruise lines creating options for safe sailings, that could sail with tighter restrictions such as PCR testing.

I think if there are cruises that vulnerable people wanted to go on, that would give them an option. 

I actually do think having something where you might have that option, it might be a super-safe option and you’d need to have PCR’s to do that.

“It’s worth cruise lines thinking whether to offer a few options like that to give people a bit more choice. If they’re anxious about it or more at risk, that could give them some extra assurance.”

Cruise Passenger reader Vicki Rogers recently cruised with Viking and thought the testing system would be invasive but was surprised to find it a non-issue.

“Just recently disembarked a Viking cruise, daily test were required along with the initial RAT before boarding. At first I thought wow if I had known this I would not have booked, but as my journey continued it was comforting to know everyone I came in contact with had also been tested that morning.

“All staff continued to wear masks and the ship was sanitised each night using state of the art equipment. I say well done Viking in ensuring the continued safety of your passengers.”

Another reader Ian Withnall felt reasassured about an upcoming Viking sailing after a tricky experience with another cruise line.

“We are booked on a Viking cruise in May and find this article reassuring as we both caught Covid on a recent cruise. On that cruise everyone did a supervised RAT on the morning of boarding and everyone passed. We came down with COVID on Day 9 which suggests we caught it on board from someone who was still incubating it at the time of the test.

“In all 6 passengers out of 100 self reported having COViD and isolated but judging from the number of people coughing the actual number of asymptomatic or mild cases hiding their symptoms to avoid having to isolate was much greater.”

Cruise Passenger’s Facebook community backed a return to supervised RAT tests before boarding during the current surge.

Ann LcLennon said: “We caught covid last week on Celebrity Eclipse, reported & were isolated & well cared for. We were meticulous about mask wearing, sanitising & social distancing. Photos of our neg RATS were sighted on embarkation, but were not supervised so people could have shown anyone’s result. We know there were people onboard who knew they were sick but chose not to report so they wouldn’t have to isolate, merrily going about their days endangering others. So selfish.”