A NSW Health review of its handling of the Ruby Princess cruise ship has been savaged at a special inquiry for including “spin, bias and weasel words”.
The undated, anonymously-authored document – mistakenly left marked as “draft” and “confidential” – was ordered by chief health officer Kerry Chant, according to her colleague Sean Tobin.
Dr Tobin, the state’s chief human biosecurity officer, was emailed the report and suggested changes after he sat on a panel that assessed the Ruby Princess as “low risk” prior to its March 19 docking at Sydney’s Circular Quay.
The report claimed influenza was the “likely” cause of illness on board, despite only half of the 48 flu tests returning a positive result.
On Wednesday, Commissioner Bret Walker SC slammed the document’s “spin” as Dr Tobin insisted it was meant to be an “honest” account of the process.
“Let me be blunt,” Mr Walker said.
“Spin is a form of dishonesty. Half truth perhaps. Weasel words, certainly. But all with a bias to producing a particular intended effect on the reader, regardless of the merits.
“Something that an impartial public servant would have nothing to do with. Do you agree?”
Dr Tobin conceded the wording could have been improved.
The document claimed “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”.
Dr Tobin admitted that was an inaccurate account of the process.
Mr Walker asked: “What can you tell me concerning the possibility that this is a document which is unmeritoriously assembling ex post facto excuses, regardless of whether they are true or false?”
“I don’t think that was the intention of the report,” Dr Tobin replied.
In its “key points”, the document also referred to overseas experiences that showed home isolation was “a much safer option” than leaving passengers on a ship – which Mr Walker considered “distracting PR”.
About 2600 passengers were allowed to disembark the Ruby Princess before the results of about a dozen COVID-19 swabs were known.
It went on to become the country’s largest single source of coronavirus infections and has been linked to at least 22 deaths.
The inquiry will resume on Monday.