NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard has defended the NSW governments’ handling of the Ruby Princess saga following revelations that health authorities had been given specific reports about ill passengers.
As the state’s coronavirus count grew by 104 on Saturday, Mr Hazzard staunchly backed his staff who had allowed the cruise ship to disembark in Sydney on March 19.
A heated press conference saw Mr Hazzard and NSW Chief Medical Officer Kerry Chant face tough questions after leaked emails revealed that results of on-board swab tests of passengers who were showing signs of influenza would have been available later that day.
“The NSW Health expert panel has assessed the Ruby Princess as NOT requiring on board health assessment in Sydney,” NSW Health said in the email.
A total of 622 passengers on board have tested positive for COVID-19 including 342 residing in NSW, with the handling of the saga to be investigated by NSW Police commissioner Mick Fuller.
Test results which were revealed by the government on March 20 showed that four passengers had contracted the virus while on board but by that time 2647 people had left the ship.
Labor ramped up their attack on the government, calling on the health minister to resign.
But a defiant Mr Hazzard said that NSW Health had worked “their hearts out” to keep the state safe and told critics to “take a step back”.
“Can I just say that the experts who made the decision were the best in the world,” Mr Hazzard said.
“And the appropriate thing at this point is for the investigation to continue.
“Each of the staff of the Chief Health Officer who made the decision made it to the best of their ability. And those people are experts in their field.”
Dr Chant also defended the actions of NSW Health based on the information given to them at the time, which was deemed low risk.
“Hindsight is a great thing and all I can say is, as the minister indicated, a team of professionals considered the information,” she said.
“I think it is clear that the influenza outbreak on the ship or the influenza activity on the ship … did leave them to conclude that the respiratory illness [cases on board] was due to influenza activity.
“Cases that we could have averted by decanting people in a more ordered way with face masks and taking them directly to their homes, would have been in the order of 11,” Dr Chant said.
“The people that have acquired their infection on the cruise ship could not have been avoided and every period of time that people were on that cruise ship, there were actually at risk of more transmission on the cruise ship in a very, vulnerable age group. ”
She said it was now clear patients who left the ship had COVID-19.
“In retrospect … we could all we wiser,” Dr Chant said.
Labor opposition leader Jodi McKay said the government’s actions amounted to a “cover-up” and slammed them for allowing the ship to disembark without testing or quarantine.
“This is one of the greatest health disasters in this state’s history,” she said.
“The buck stops with the health minister and we are today calling for the health minister to stand aside.”