Some of Australia’s leading infectious disease experts are concerned the cruise industry could be loosening pandemic precautions too quickly, as unvaccinated cruise passengers continue to press for restrictions to be lifted.

As the United States declares Covid to no longer be a public health emergency, closer to home, concerns continue about infection management on cruises in Australia. 

Australian cruise lines are slowly relaxing their policing of Covid protocols, but Professor Catherine Bennett, Chair in Epidemiology at Deakin University says neglection of these policies could lead to more transmission on ships. 

“Even if symptom screening still occurs, reducing active screening potentially increases the risk of seeding events right from the start of a voyage if people without symptoms but are infectious are allowed to board, which in turn could lead to multiple outbreaks early in a voyage, and more cases overall.

“It is no longer clear how much masks or distancing reduce transmission risk with the latest variants, but this might still make the difference between being exposed, and that exposure turning into infection for people who are at greater risk of severe disease with an infection.”

Doctor Paul Griffin, Director of Infectious Diseases at Mater Hospital also expresses concern about increased transmission but sees the need to balance risks with the reality of coexisting with the virus.

“Potentially, less carrying out of COVID safe practices could increase transmission, but we find ourselves in a challenging period where we have to learn to live with the virus, but also continue to make risk assessments and not become complacent.

“Ships are still a high-risk environment, similar to aged care centres or hospitals, it’s probably best to gradually phase protocols out, rather than remove them all at once.”

Mr Griffin says while cruise lines still have a duty to keep passengers safe, society is quickly shifting towards a model of personal responsibility. 

“We are definitely in an evolution towards personal responsibility, although in the cruise industry at this point, there still has to be a degree of responsibility for staff to keep crew and cruisers safe.

“We are not too far away from it being totally up to the individual, however, for now, measures to minimise outbreaks are still necessary.”


Should cruise lines be maintaining more stringent protocols?

On the issue of vaccination, Mr Griffin says while vaccination is impactful, it will likely soon be a recommendation rather than a requirement.

“Being up to date with vaccines does go a long way towards minimising impact, however, transitioning to vaccination on cruise ships being a strong recommendation rather than a mandate seems likely, I think it will happen not too far away.”

Ms Bennett says that vaccination is still key to keeping people on ships healthy. 

“The main driver of the reduction of severe illness seen now compared with pre-Omicron times is the combination of immunity acquitted through vaccination and infection.

“The direct link between immunity and reduced risk of severe disease remains critical onboard where ships can be several days from port and not have the expertise or equipment to support critically ill COVID-19 patients.”

Some cruise passengers are also expressing concern about ships becoming lackadaisical in their upholding of Covid practices. A Cruise Passenger reader wished to remain anonymous was shocked on her recent cruise from Adelaide to Fremantle that Covid safety recommendations were rarely carried out.

A nine-time cruiser who hadn’t travelled since the pandemic and remains anxious of Covid, the reader specifically chose a cruise due to the stringent health protocols. 

“I took comfort in thinking that everyone would take RATs before we got on board, as you don’t have that assurance when you go to a concert or a bar, for example. I didn’t realise that not every passenger gets checked. I also thought since masks were mentioned in the literature that they would be more prevalent and liked that people had to be vaccinated to cruise.”

The reader felt like onboard Covid safety left a bit to be desired. 

“I understand that masks are no longer mandatory, but I felt like since P&O was recommending we wore them, the staff should have also been wearing them, leading by example. Most staff were not.

“I was also surprised that we were asked to join other diners for meals. I said I wasn’t comfortable the first time that happened, but when we were only sharing with one couple I decided the risk was minimal. It was still a risk I didn’t intend to take though.”

Leading cruise travel agent and owner of Deluxe Travel & Cruise Sharon Summerhayes says from her viewpoint, she mostly sees clients feeling very safe and happy with ships practices. 

“Most of my clients have been happy with the protocols and felt safe. I’ve had a few become infected on ships, but many more in conversation talking about how they caught it from loved ones, work or elsewhere.”

Ms Summerhayes says currently protocols serve little use.

“All restrictions should be removed because the way they are now, is pretty useless. It’s an honesty system for pre-boarding Covid testing and can’t be properly policed. Anyone could get a friend to take a test for them, or even screenshot an old photo of a negative test and present that at the pier. It doesn’t work. Masks are rarely worn or disposed of properly so there’s a limited benefit and they will never ban masks on ships, so those who want to wear them, will.”

Other cruisers such as Gail Rudd, feel that Covid risks are rather just a natural part of life now.

“Unfortunately Covid is a part of cruising now. People jamming into lifts, tenders & buses seem to contribute. You have to assume if you are going on a cruise that there is every possibility you will, at some time, pick it up. Don’t let that stop you from enjoying yourselves.”

Deborah Buring said on her recent P&O cruise, all guidelines were strictly followed.

“I went on Pacific Explorer out of Adelaide and had a wonderful time. Our RAT tests were checked and so was our vaccination status, please everyone COVID is not gone, and thinking it is deadly to some people, please please still follow the guidelines to keep everyone safe and happy cruising.”

Lynn Batey feels P&O’s following of the government regulations is enough, and more than she is seeing in other environments.

“We need to stop with all the Covid posts. We all cruise knowing there’s a risk of catching it on board. Just as much chance of getting it at the shops or a restaurant. And P&O are following the government protocols and that’s all they have to do – and doing a good job of it. Nobody checks my negative RAT test in Woolies!”