A NSW Health physician has told a special inquiry the department decided not to wait for COVID-19 swab results before allowing Ruby Princess passengers to disembark.
According to ABC News, the state’s Chief Human Biosecurity Officer, Dr Sean Tobin, said the decision was made so that passengers from the ship, which has become Australia’s largest source of coronavirus infections, could catch their flights.
When the Ruby Princess docked at Sydney’s Circular Quay in March, around a dozen COVID-19 swabs had been taken, but 2,600 passengers were allowed to disembark as the samples were taken to a lab, the inquiry heard.
Dr Tobin was pressed on why that risk was taken by public health administrators, given the inconvenience to passengers of waiting for the results would have been a matter of around six hours.
Commissioner Bret Walker SC said it could not have been about money, nor the commercial interests of cruise ships, as reported by ABC News.
“By elimination, I’m left with a question mark. What is it that was weighing against ‘waiting and seeing’?” the commissioner asked.
“I think it was a concern for the passengers primarily,” Dr Tobin replied.
“What, so they could get home, to their own bed?” Walker asked.
“Well, to their flights,” Dr Tobin said.
At the time of disembarkation, the Ruby Princess was assessed as “low risk” by a panel that included Dr Tobin. At least 22 people on the ship have since died from COVID-19.
Furthermore, the NSW Health review of its handling of the Ruby Princess debacle was savaged by commissioner Walker for including “spin”, “bias” and “weasel words”.
According to ABC News, the undated, anonymously-authored document, which was reportedly mistakenly left marked as “draft” and “confidential”, was ordered by Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant, Dr Tobin said.
The document reportedly claimed influenza was the “likely” cause of illness on board, despite only half of the 48 flu tests returning a positive result.
Commissioner Walker slammed the report’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, according to ABC News.
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 conceded that was an inaccurate account of the process.
“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?” Walker asked.
“I don’t think that was the intention of the report,” Dr Tobin replied, as reported by the public broadcaster.
In its “key points”, the document reportedly referred to overseas experiences that showed home isolation was “a much safer option” than leaving passengers on a ship, which commissioner Walker considered “distracting PR”.
The inquiry is set to resume on Monday.
News of the special inquiry comes as Princess Cruises prepares to face two fresh lawsuits alleging the cruise line did not take adequate steps to protect passengers on the Ruby Princess and Grand Princess.
According to USA Today, the lawsuits allege that the cruise line failed to adequately screen for COVID-19 during the boarding process aboard both ships, and then did not act fast enough to impose a quarantine when cases were discovered.
“This is part of a bigger picture of how terribly mismanaged the whole coronavirus outbreak was by the entire cruise industry,” Michael Winkleman, the Miami-based attorney whose firm filed both suits in US District Court in California, told USA Today, adding the virus spread “because of failure to act reasonably and promptly”.
The suits, which are among several that have already been filed, seek class-action status for passengers aboard both the Grand Princess and Ruby Princess.
In an email to USA Today, Princess Cruises said it would not comment on pending litigation, but that it has been “sensitive to the difficulties the COVID-19 outbreak has caused to our guests and crew.”
The cruise line added: “Our response throughout this process has focused on the well-being of our guests and crew within the parameters dictated to us by the government agencies involved and the evolving medical understanding of this new illness.”
Travel Weekly has contacted Princess Cruises for comment.
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