The doctor on board the Ruby Princess has told an inquiry she would not have let passengers disembark when it docked in Sydney in March.
Dr Ilse von Watzdorf was quizzed by the special inquiry into the cruise ship on its first day on Wednesday.
Commissioner Bret Walker asked her why she marked “no” in response to a question on the Maritime Arrivals Reporting System form about the potential spread of infection or disease on board when 24 passengers had reported high temperatures.
Another question on the form about difficulty breathing and persistent coughing symptoms was also left blank.
Dr von Watzdorf said she felt “disadvantaged” because she did not have access to the form during questioning. However, she said she would not have wanted at the time to convey there were no passengers showing COVID-19 symptoms on board.
She said she had swabbed some passengers who had presented with flu-like symptoms for the coronavirus after they tested negative for influenza.
“The times that we were in, 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,” she said.
The inquiry heard two asymptomatic passengers from the US and five people with flu-like symptoms were tested for coronavirus when the ship docked at Wellington in New Zealand.
It also heard more than 100 passengers had developed respiratory illness during the trip. Al those with flu-like symptoms were confined to their cabins.
But after the Ruby Princess docked, its 2700 passengers disembarked without adequate health checks.
Counsel assisting the inquiry, Richard Beasley, asked Dr von Watzdorf whether that was appropriate.
“I was surprised that we were allowed to do that, without waiting for the results to come through,” she said.
“If it was my decision, I would’ve perhaps waited.”
The ship has since been linked to at least 21 deaths and hundreds of coronavirus cases across Australia.
The special commission of inquiry into the ship’s arrival, overseen by Mr Walker, is running in parallel to a NSW police criminal probe by Strike Force Bast. Its report is due by September.
A coronial inquest also remains a possibility.
The Ruby Princess remains docked at Port Kembla, south of Sydney, but has been ordered to leave Australian waters by the end of Thursday.
It still has hundreds of crew on board, including about 40 who have the coronavirus. NSW Health is monitoring their condition.
Two more crew members were removed from the ship on Wednesday, and transferred to NSW hospitals.
Others were taken by buses on Tuesday and Wednesday to hotels, where they will remain until they can be repatriated on charter flights to their home countries.
On Wednesday, NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller said Australian Border Force Commissioner Michael Outram had written to cruise ship parent company Carnival Australia and directed the Ruby Princess to depart national waters on Thursday.
The ship’s captain does not have the coronavirus and will be able to sail the vessel.
“Nine individuals flew home last night, another 18 [are] flying home today and the rest will fly home over the next two days,” Mr Fuller said.
“It was either the responsibility of Carnival or the individual consulates to arrange transportation home – that was the deal I cut.”
On Tuesday, crew members clapped and cheered from their balconies as the first of their workmates finally began to disembark.
One disembarking female crew member from Ireland, meanwhile, said she was “absolutely delighted” and “never thought the day would come”.
“I’ve been in the cabin for like, about a month now,” she said in footage shared by NSW Police.
“It’s so surreal … it’s slightly overwhelming.”
By Sunday night, 190 of the crew remaining on board the cruise liner had tested positive for COVID-19.
A further 12 infected crew had previously been evacuated to NSW hospitals.