A senior NSW Health physician has told the Ruby Princess inquiry it “was not unusual” for cruise ships to defy government requests to collect coronavirus swabs in the early stages of the pandemic.
By late February, the state’s chief health officer Dr Kerry Chant had written to the cruise industry with guidelines calling for COVID-19 swabs to also be collected when patients were tested for influenza.
During a voyage that arrived in Sydney on March 8, 30 people on board had been tested for influenza after becoming sick.
But Dr Vicky Sheppeard, a NSW Health physician who sat on a risk-assessment team for that voyage, said no COVID-19 swabs were collected.
“It was not unusual for the ships to not have collected any swabs,” she told the inquiry.
Dr Sheppeard said the department had learnt there was a “practical difficulty” for the industry to secure COVID-19 swabs due to shortages.
The department even supplied taxpayer-funded swabs to remedy the shortfall, but Dr Sheppeard struggled to answer questions about what else was done to address the defiance beside sending another letter in March.
“The notion that these very large corporations were unable to procure swabs for love or money strikes me as almost impossible to believe could be seriously advanced, do you understand?” Commissioner Bret Walker SC asked.
“I understand,” Dr Sheppeard replied.
“What does seem quite likely is that they weren’t trying hard enough, and that is because they didn’t care enough.”
Dr Sheppeard it was “not specifically her job” to consider the issue, but accepted she was “part of a group” with responsibility.
“You were being told by the cruise ships they didn’t have swabs to do that which you regarded, along with your colleagues, what was required in the interests of public health,” Mr Walker said.
The inquiry is examining the handling of the Ruby Princess after it docked from a second voyage on March 19 and 2,600 passengers were allowed to disembark, despite signs of influenza and other illness on board.
The passengers were told to self-isolate but were allowed to take taxis, buses and flights before COVID-19 swabs had been tested.
The ship became Australia’s biggest single source of COVID-19 infection after several swabs came back positive, leading to hundreds of other infections and at least 22 deaths.
The commission will report back in August.