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Passengers on the Australian owned adventure ship, Greg Mortimer, are set to launch a class action after 128 people became infected with COVID-19.

Sydney-based Aurora Expeditions has been accused in a statement of claim, of endangering the safety of 217 people by allowing the Greg Mortimer to leave Argentina on March 15, just days after the World Health Organisation declared the coronavirus crisis a pandemic.

There are also allegations the line pressured the ship’s medical officer to understate the extent of the outbreak to authorities in Uruguay.

Some passengers had paid more than $50,000 for the cruise. According to reports, others claim they were told they would not receive refunds or be able to transfer their cruise to a later date.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Antony Phillips from Redfern in Sydney will be the first plaintiff to launch legal proceedings against Aurora Expeditions.

Mr Phillips, who spent more than $50,000 for the cruise, has accused the company of placing commercial interests ahead of the safety of its customers, according to the SMH report.

“It’s beyond belief that a company with such great staff can get it so wrong. They played Russian roulette with our lives and it wasn’t their call to make,” he said.

Mr Phillips recalled an executive from Aurora Expeditions attempting to reassure anxious guests just hours before boarding, claiming “Antarctica was the safest place on earth”.

The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald also obtained text messages from a passenger in Perth, who queried the line about cancelling the cruise, just three days before it was due to depart.

“In view of the World Health Organisation calling a pandemic in relation to the current virus crisis, is it sensible or wise to be having up to 200 people on a modestly sized cruise ship? Would it not be sensible to postpone?” the passenger from Perth asked.

An Aurora Expeditions representative insisted the company had taken “extreme precautions to protect our passengers”, before warning: “If you were to cancel, please note that our standard terms and conditions would apply and we would not be able to refund or transfer your payment.”

When the Greg Mortimer set sail, there were only a handful of coronavirus cases in the province of Tierra del Fuego in southern Argentina.

But days after departure, the passengers were told that the ship would not visit the island of South Georgia in the southern Atlantic.

On March 22, the ship’s medical officer, Dr Mauricio Usme discovered a passenger was suffering from a fever, which prompted the ship to change its course and head to Uruguay.

It has been alleged that as the ship neared the coast, Dr Usme faced pressure from the senior ship staff and operators, including Aurora Expeditions to downplay the severity of the outbreak.

An Aurora executive allegedly urged Dr Useme to make changes to a maritime declaration form to downplay to Uruguayan authorities the risk of potentially infectious diseases on the vessel.

“The risk we carry is public outcry and wharf side workers refusing to allow the ship to berth and allow passengers to disembark,” the executive wrote in an email dated March 26.

“Please bear in mind that how you write the health declaration will influence the way that this is viewed. We don’t know we have COVID-19.”

The executive added: “Give limited information truthfully.”

Dr Usme responded: “For ethics, for morality, for responsibility with ourselves and with the health of those who are not affected, the health declaration must reflect the reality that we currently have.”

On March 27, Uruguay authorities allowed the ship to anchor in its waters and most passengers were allowed to disembark on April 10 before catching a medivac flight on April 12 from Montevideo to Melbourne.

Seventy per cent of 112 passengers who were on the repatriation flight, tested positive for COVID-19.

An Aurora Expeditions spokesperson said: “While we are yet to receive notification of the potential action, Aurora Expeditions rejects the characterisation of the situation and will, if and as required, vigorously defend the matter.”

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