The beleaguered Ruby Princess appears to be about to sail out of Australia’s waters, with tugboats approaching the ship at its Port Kembla dock on Thursday afternoon.
It comes after about 300 Filipino crew were finally allowed to leave the ship on Thursday morning.
“They packed their bags and they made their way down to the dock at Port Kembla, where last-minute medical checks cleared them all of coronavirus,” ABC reporter Mark Reddie, who was on the scene, said.
“Their golden ticket, I guess, was their flight itinerary.”
The crew were to be taken by several buses to Sydney Airport, to catch charter flights home to the Philippines on Thursday night.
They are among many groups to have disembarked the ship since Tuesday, with other crew already having returned to their countries of origin.
NSW Police Deputy Commissioner Gary Worboys said on Thursday that authorities were “extremely confident” the Ruby Princess’ departure from Port Kembla was imminent. About 500 crew members would remain on board.
“A good quantity on that boat are willing to travel on that vessel,” Mr Worboys said.
A total of 21 crew members from the Ruby Princess have tested positive for COVID-19 and have been taken to hotels for a 14-day quarantine period. A dozen more had previously been taken to NSW hospitals.
NSW chief health officer Dr Kerry Chant said health authorities had worked with Australian Border Force, police, Aspen Medical, and the ship’s medical crew, and were confident the on-board coronavirus outbreak was under control.
“The ship is now in a position to set sail,” she said.
Princess Cruises president Jan Swartz said on Thursday the ship’s crew had shown strength amid difficult circumstances.
She also thanked the Illawarra community for its support.
“The Illawarra community never lost sight of the fact that this was all about people caught up in difficult circumstances that were not of their making,” Ms Swartz said.
The Ruby Princess has spent more than a fortnight at Port Kembla, south of Sydney, after COVID-19 broke out on board.
It has been linked to 21 coronavirus deaths and up to 600 infections across Australia since its controversial docking in Sydney early on March 19.
The ship is the subject of a NSW Police criminal probe, and may also become the subject of a coronial inquiry.
A special commission of inquiry led by Bret Walker SC had its second day of hearings on Thursday.
It heard from the ship’s hotel manager, who said he was surprised passengers who had been tested for COVID-19 had been allowed to leave the ill-fated cruise ship when they arrived in Sydney – and before results were released.
Charles Verwall told the inquiry that the situation on sister ship Diamond Princess – which was quarantined in Japan in February due to a COVID-19 outbreak – had alerted crew to the risks of the virus.
Mr Verwall said social distancing was implemented from the start of the Ruby Princess’ 11-day cruise to New Zealand on March 8. There were also increased cleaning protocols and changes to the kitchen service.
But no changes were made to entertainment areas, including nightclubs and shows.
Mr Verwall said there was concern on board that passengers could be presenting signs of the virus, but this was difficult to confirm after five negative COVID-19 test results came back from New Zealand.
He added no NSW Health personnel boarded the ship on arrival in Sydney on March 19, in contrast to their meticulous inspections on March 8.
On Wednesday, the ship’s doctor, Ilse von Watzdorf, told the inquiry she would not have let the 2700 passengers disembark without test results, but the choice was not hers.
“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 inquiry is public, but its opening hearings came without any publicity, prompting questions of NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian on Thursday.
She insisted she had not been informed the inquiry would hold its first public hearing on Wednesday. She said this was appropriate to ensure the inquiry’s independence.