Authorities knew about sick patients on board the Ruby Princess but declared the ship “low risk” before letting passengers disperse across the country, it has been revealed.
While defending its decision to approve disembarkation, NSW Health has admitted it knew of 104 cases of acute respiratory infections on the cruise but determined this “fell short of the definition of an ‘outbreak’.”
Despite the number of sick on board, NSW Health approved the release of some 2700 passengers from Australia and overseas without undertaking coronavirus testing or enforcing quarantine.
The Ruby Princess has since became the nation’s biggest source of COVID-19, leading to seven deaths across the country, with 342 infections in NSW alone linked to the cruise.
NSW Health’s admission follows media reports exposing emails from the ship’s physician who warned the department about two unwell passengers in isolation who had been swabbed and tested negative for the flu.
Nine News reported on Friday that the ship’s doctor was told by NSW Health that the Ruby Princess did not require on board medical assistance but asked for the swabs to be tested for COVID-19.
The Australian also reports on Saturday that the ship sought the department’s advice on how to proceed with guests and whether the swabs would be processed for coronavirus.
The government responded that an on-board assessment was not needed and the passengers were “free to disembark tomorrow”.
Responding to the media reports, NSW Health released a statement defending its assessment of the ship as “low risk”, citing the fact that many of the passengers had been confirmed to have the common flu.
Testing for COVID-19 had also been undertaken when the ship was in New Zealand before it arrived in Sydney, the department said.
NSW Health also confirmed that the ship’s doctor had been treating two sick passengers for influenza, despite both of them testing negative for flu.
“The risk assessment process…balanced the level of risk against the benefit of removing passengers from a cruise ship on which the virus could be circulating,” NSW Health said a statement.
“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 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’.”
NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller will lead an investigation into the Ruby Princess cruise ship fiasco.
Cruise ships have become a major source of infection in NSW with more than 470 cases linked to several vessels, including 351 cases from the Ruby Princess and 84 from the Ovation of the Seas.
Australia’s coronavirus infections rose to more than 5330 on Saturday, with 28 deaths as the global tally exceeded one million cases of COVID-19.
Overseas Australians will be able to access regular flights home from London, Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Auckland for the next four weeks, Foreign Minister Marise Payne says.
Qantas and Virgin Australia will operate the services, which have been organised after talks with the federal government.
“Many Australians will be able to get to one of these four destinations. They can do so knowing there will be an Australian airline to get them home,” Senator Payne said in a statement on Friday night.
Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said the month-long window would allow Australians to get home as soon as possible, while also providing freight capacity to exporters and importers.
He indicated the government had helped fund the services on top of the $1 billion support package already announced for the industry.
But it’s unclear whether the increase in flights will make it any cheaper for stranded travellers and expatriates to get home amid skyrocketing long haul flight prices in recent weeks.
The cheapest one-way flight from London to Sydney in the next month is $1000 and involves stopovers in Poland, India and Singapore, according to Google Flights.
The cheapest direct one-way flight from LA to Sydney in the next month is $1479 on May 3.
The British government announced a STG75 million ($A153 million) package to help its own nationals return to the UK earlier this week.
Foreign Minister Dominic Raab said airlines should offer alternative flights “at little or no cost where routes have been cancelled” and allow passengers to change tickets between carriers at no additional cost, the BBC reported.
Senator Payne indicated the federal government could potentially fund charter flights to pick up Australians who are unable to access the four airports, particularly those stranded in South America and the Pacific Islands.
“We recognise that, in some cases, this will not be possible. We will continue to work closely with airlines and our overseas consular assistance network in these situations,” she said.
“Where there are no commercial options available, the Government will consider supporting, on a case-by-case basis, non-scheduled services to other overseas destinations.
“We are continuing our constructive discussions with Qantas and Virgin on flights to less accessible destinations, including South America and the Pacific.”