As the Ruby Princess finally left Australia this week, Princess Cruises president Jan Swartz issued a heartfelt plea to Australians who have made the line the country’s favourite: “Stick with us”.
Her appeal came in a personalised letter to tens of thousands of cruisers in which she addressed the issues of how COVID-19 has so seriously affected the line, particularly in relation to the Ruby Princess, Diamond Princess and Grand Princess.
The Ruby Princess has become the centre of one of the largest clusters of the disease, with 600 cases and 21 deaths.
“You may be concerned about what the future holds for Princess, and I understand that. These are uncertain times. But I’d like to share with you what I’ve experienced,” says Ms Swartz.
“I have been inspired by the way our teammates aboard Diamond Princess, Grand Princess and Ruby Princess have gone above and beyond to care for our guests and each other. How our people at sea and ashore have come together, working long hours and yet continuing to ask ‘What more can I do to help?’
“How our guests have sent more messages of encouragement than I can count – words that made me more resolved than ever to make sure Princess comes through this even stronger.”
She welcomed the special investigation now going in into the ship’s Sydney docking on March 19. ” We look forward to having fact-based discussions regarding the matter and to setting the record straight” she said.
She ends the letter: “I have only one request of you: Stick with us. You’re the reason why we do what we do. We’re not going anywhere. We’re just taking a moment to make sure we do things right.”
Yesterday, at the special inquiry into the circumstances surrounding how the ship was allowed to dock and 2,700 passengers disembark without medical checks, the ship’s hotel manager gave evidence that he was “surprised” passengers were allowed by NSW Health officials to leave with no screening.
At the time, 13 passengers had been tested for COVID-19, but results were not known.
Charles Verwall told the special commission that NSW Health officials had told the ship’s staff to ask sick passengers to present to the ship’s doctors – but did not want to conduct an on-board assessment before docking.
Mr Verwall told the inquiry that NSW officials boarded the ship on 8 March to conduct and assessment before the ship’s itinerary began. “We were expecting the same treatment from NSW Health as we received on the 8th,” he said.
The hotel manager said the line an instituted an “elevated level of hygiene” and this commenced before the second lot of passengers boarded on 8 March.
As the hearing was taking Mr Verwall’s evidence, the Ruby Princess was preparing to leave Port Kembla in the Illawarra with some 500 crew still aboard.
It is bound for Manilla in the Philippines, where much of the Carnival fleet is riding at anchor with skeleton crews.
Carnival Australia donated $50,000 towards the Mission to Seafarers at Port Kembla to thank the Illawarra community for taking in the ship and its crew.
Carnival Australia president Sture Myrmell sent a video message to the Illawarra thanking residents for taking in his vessel after it had spent several days at sea.
However, the three investigations continue into how Ruby Princess came to be at the centre of one of the largest clusters of COVID-19 in Australia.
On Wednesday, the ship’s senior doctor, Ilse Von Watzdorf, gave video evidence from the ship at Port Kembla, revealing her “surprise” when almost 2,700 passengers were allowed to leave the ship in Sydney Harbour last month.
She said she would not have allowed passengers to disembark before tests had been carried out and the results known.
“I was trying to be sure if there was a chance of it being COVID that we would know about it and we would pick that up,” the doctor told the NSW Government’s commission of inquiry, led by Bret Walker SC.
More than 100 passengers had developed respiratory illness during the trip, and all those with flu-like symptoms had been confined to their cabins.
Counsel Assisting the Inquiry, Richard Beasley, asked if the passengers should have been allowed to disembark.
“If it was my decision I would’ve perhaps waited.”
The decision to allow them off was made by NSW Health.
The doctor said it would be wrong to say there were no signs or symptoms of COVID-19 aboard in the hours before it docked.
Asked by commissioner Walker why she responded “no” to the question on the maritime arrivals form when 24 passengers had reported high temperatures, Dr Von Watzdorf said she felt “disadvantaged” because she did not have access to the form submitted during questioning.
But she suggested she would not have wanted at the time to convey there were no passengers showing COVID-19 symptoms on board.
Another question on the form about difficulty breathing and persistent coughing symptoms had been left blank as the ship docked on March 19.
Dozens of crew members disembarked the ship and travelled to NSW hotels before being repatriated on international charter flights.