New information concerning the communications between the Ruby Princess and NSW health officials before she landed last month pose questions over why a police inquiry is being held.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian ordered a police investigation into why the ship disembarked 2,650 passengers while tests being carried out on 13 others with flu like symptoms. There have been claims of misleading information and even “lying”.
But documents seen by Cruise Passenger and a statement from NSW health appear to show clear communications between the doctor on the vessel and health officials on shore before the ship docked.
The Ruby Princess was rated “low risk” by health officials before passengers were cleared to land.
With hindsight, certainly a terrible mistake. Seven have died and hundreds more developed coronavirus. And absolutely a matter of deep concern.
But was it a criminal act? A deliberate act against the law motivated by intent or criminal negligence?
According to Police Commissioner Mick Fuller, he is planning to hand over the evidence he has so far to the NSW Homicide Squad. It will allow police to receive all the ships correspondence internally and contacts with the shore.
Mr Fuller sees any criminal proceedings taking place involving the biosecurity measures, state security laws enacted to stop the spread of the virus or criminal negligence. And he plans to call on all the passengers to come forward and give evidence, urging those affected to contact crime stoppers.
An email received by the ship and seen by Cruise Passenger from an unnamed NSW Health official states:
“The NSW Health expert panel has assessed the Ruby Princess as NOT requiring on board health assessment in Sydney. We would however ask you to send the 15 samples to our lab for COVID testing.
“I have attached our lab form, please include the details of each person on one form, include a copy with the specimens and email a copy to me.
“You are free to disembark tomorrow, however according to the new Australian government guidance, all passengers must go into self-isolation for 14 days.
“The information about this is found here https://www.health.gov.au/
“I will let you know when the results are received – likely tomorrow afternoon.”
A statement issued by NSW Health in answer to questions from Cruise Passenger also appears to clear the ship of issuing misleading information.
“To date there have been 342 confirmed cases of COVID-19 diagnosed in NSW in passengers who all acquired their infection while on, or in some cases, possibly before boarding the Ruby Princess cruise.
“Transmission of COVID-19 amongst these passengers could not have been prevented by NSW Health staff. No cases of COVID-19 were identified on board the ship before it docked.
“The vast majority of these passengers reported they did not develop symptoms until after leaving the Ruby Princess.
“All passengers were advised to self-isolate for 14 days following disembarkation, which NSW Health has confirmed was provided by the Federal Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment
“Probable secondary transmission has been limited to 11 confirmed cases as of 3 April.”
In what appears to be a justification for allowing the passengers to leave, the NSW health statement goes on: “International experience shows COVID-19 can rapidly spread among passengers if left on board, so self-isolation at home is a much safer option than leaving passengers on board. NSW Health had prepared plans in the event COVID-19 being identified on a cruise ship.”
The NSW Health statement, issued late tonight, goes some way to explain what occurred on that day.
“On this particular voyage, it was known that influenza activity had been identified on the ship.
“The Ruby Princess was assessed as low risk, based on the level of illness on board, the negative COVID-19 tests done on passengers while in New Zealand, and the positive influenza tests done on a large proportion of the passengers with influenza like illness.
“The risk assessment process recognised that there is no “no risk” setting for COVID-19, but balanced the level of risk against the benefit of removing passengers from a cruise ship on which the virus could be circulating.
“Rapid influenza tests identify only a proportion of people who actually have the infection, meaning some people return a negative result even though they are infected with the flu. The illness and test results identified on board was consistent with influenza.
“This is reflected in email correspondence between NSW Health and the ship’s doctor on the Ruby Princess who confirmed influenza was circulating on the cruise.
“However, in two sick patients referenced in the email, although they had tested negative to influenza, the cause of their respiratory infection was consistent with influenza for which they were receiving treatment…
“Under the Commonwealth Department of Health cruise protocols, an ILI outbreak is defined when ‘more than one per cent of the ships total passengers and crew have an influenza like illness’. The Ruby Princess had 2647 passengers and 1148 crew. The ship reported to NSW Health there were 104 acute respiratory infections of which 36 people had presented to the ship’s clinic with influenza like illness during the cruise and its numbers fell short of the definition of an ‘outbreak’.
“The Commonwealth Department of Health protocol on managing novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19 risk from cruise ship) states “provided there are no concerns about the COVID-19 risk profile of the ship or suspected COVID-19 cases reported …the ship may be allowed to continue voyage while samples are tested”.
The Ruby Princess has now become the largest source of Australian fatalities from COVID-19, after two more died yesterday. There are over 300 other cases from passengers who were allowed off the ship that day and who then travelled across the country.
Carnival Australia and Princess Cruises insist that the vessel carried out all of the NSW government protocols about landing “to the letter”. Carnival Australia boss Sture Myrmell strongly denied any problems with the ship in a video statement this week.
Cruise Passenger has asked NSW Health to pinpoint where the ship’s communications were incorrect. We will publish their response as soon as we receive it.