A NSW Health official has issued a tearful apology to an inquiry into the Ruby Princess outbreak on Tuesday and said a cruise doctor told her they should “stop all cruise ships.”
Kelly-Anne Ressler, a senior epidemiologist for NSW Health told the NSW government inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the ship’s disembarkation that it was not acceptable that more people on board the ship were tested for influenza than COVID-19.
Brett Walker, the commissioner for the inquiry said that from questioning Ressler, he had gathered that protocol in place to protect Australia’s population was not observed.
“Is there anything you want to tell me as to why I should not draw the conclusion that there has been a reprehensible shortcoming in NSW Health in that regard?” Walker said.
“All I can say is that I’m very sorry it turned out the way it did. It was not our intention,” Ressler responded, holding back tears.
“Myself and my colleagues at the public health unit were working very hard on this. We did what we could. And if we could do it again, it would be very different.”
Ressler also confirmed the ship was assessed as “low risk” based off an outdated log of unwell passengers on board.
Last week, it was reported that the list of sick patients sent to NSW Health prior to the ship’s arrival was updated with dozens more people reporting flu-like symptoms.
However, the ship’s senior doctor, Ilse Von Watzdorf, said she did not get around to sending the updated version.
Von Watzdorf has also admitted that she would not have allowed the passengers to disembark when they did.
Ressler said von Watzdorf also made a “passing comment” to her via Whatsapp on 8 March that “we have to stop all cruises”.
Ressler said the two were communicating via Whatsapp as they were having trouble with the satellite phones.
Von Watzdorf also sent a Whatsapp message saying she hoped the passengers would “behave this cruise”, which Ressler said she took to mean “Hopefully they won’t become unwell”.
It was also revealed by counsel assisting, Richard Beasley SC, that a Border Force representative had spoken with the NSW port authority’s duty harbour master about turning the ship around.
“Shortly after, the same Australian Border Force officer rang the harbour master and may have said it could proceed,” Beasly said.
According to the Guardian, Border Force commissioner, Michael Outram told a separate inquiry in Canberra that the officer hadn’t told the harbour master what they should or shouldn’t do.
“They’ve got no legislated authority to do that,” he said.
“Because we’re called the border force, people think we’re omnipotent and that I have some miraculous legislative authority to direct states and territories and all sorts of organisations to do all sorts of things,” he said. “I don’t.”
At least 20 deaths and almost 700 cases of COVID-19 can be linked to the ship, which equates to around 10 per cent of all cases in Australia.
This comes as the US Congress launches its own investigation into Carnival Corporation’s handling of COVID-19 outbreaks on its ships.
Princess Cruises is a subsidiary of Carnival Corporation.
The inquiry continues today. You can watch the live stream HERE.
Featured image: iStock/Evgenii Mitroshin