Princess Cruises has come off virtually unscathed in the NSW government’s special enquiry into the Ruby Princess disembarkation debacle.
Instead, most of the blame fell on NSW Health’s “inexcusable” and “inexplicable” mistakes.
The Special Commission of Inquiry into the Ruby Princess handed in its findings on Friday in which it found the cruise line had not misled public authorities involved in the ships disembarkation.
Commissioner of the enquiry, Brett Walker, gave very few suggestions to the cruise line but said it needed to ensure its onboard medical personnel were across the latest health guidelines and its guests were kept up to date about suspect cases.
Walker also said the ships doctor, Ilse von Watzdorf, should have updated NSW Health on the additional passengers and crew who were diagnosed with influenza-like illness (ILI) and acute respiratory infection (ARI) after her initial report was made.
“This was an inadvertent oversight on her behalf, rather than a failure to comply with a requirement,” he said.
Princess Cruises said in a statement that it would consider the commission’s specific comments about the cruise line “to the fullest possible extent”.
“Princess Cruises also welcomes the commission’s attention to improving information sharing and coordination among government agencies in the future,” the line said.
“In our submission to the inquiry, we agreed that this area deserved consideration. We look forward to collaborating with government agencies and industry peers to improve these systems.
“We will now take some time to consider the commission’s findings. In the light of ongoing legal proceedings, we are not able to add to these comments at this time.”
The inquiry was established in April after 2,700 passengers were allowed to disembark the Ruby Princess in March, which led to hundreds of cases of COVID-19 and at least 28 deaths.
Report slams NSW Health
Walker also gave very few recommendations for state health authorities and said they had recognised their mistakes and would “do things differently” if given the opportunity.
The commissioner said it would be “inappropriate” and “unhelpful” to make recommendations to experts that “amount to no more than ‘do your job'”.
“NSW Health should have ensured that cruise ships were aware of the change to the definition of a ‘suspect case’ for COVID-19 made on 10 March,” Walker said.
“This would have resulted in the identification of such cases on the Ruby Princess.
“NSW Health should also have ensured that such persons were isolated in cabins. These were serious mistakes.”
The report also noted that the ship’s classification as “low risk” is as “inexplicable as it is unjustifiable”.
“It was a serious mistake,” the report said.
“No evidence provided to this commission, or given by witnesses in the public hearings, comes even reasonably close to satisfactorily explaining how a decision to “do nothing” by means of precaution was adequate, or rational.
“The suggestion that people would have to self-isolate at home is no answer. They had to get home first.”
However, Walker also acknowledged that the mistakes made by health authorities “were not made here because they failed to treat the threat of COVID-19 seriously”.
“Those physicians relied on the best science, not pseudoscience or matters of political convenience.
“They were diligent, and properly organised. There are no ‘systemic’ failures to address.
“Put simply, despite the best efforts of all, some serious mistakes were made.”
Aviation workers knew risks but were powerless to prevent disaster
ABC News reported that Virgin Australia had called the ABF and requested a list of passengers from Ruby Princess who planned to board a flight with the airline but was rebuffed by Australian Border Force (ABF).
Qantas also expressed concern, with one of its captains radioing the Sydney operations centre a few days after the ship disembarked to report his crew had spotted passengers with Ruby Princess bags and t-shirts.
After much back and forth between health authorities and airlines, it was confirmed that the ABF did not have the authority to prevent Ruby Princess passengers from boarding, but airlines did.
However, airlines were denied access to information that would have identified which passengers had been on board the ship.
The Transport Workers Union (TWU) said aviation workers were put at “unacceptable risk” and is calling on Qantas to review if any cabin crew, cabin cleaners or baggage handlers subsequently contracted the virus.
“It is clear that cabin crew, pilots, cabin cleaners and baggage handlers were exposed to an unacceptable risk over the Ruby Princess debacle,” TWU national secretary Michael Kaine said.
“The inquiry has highlighted the failures of the Federal and State authorities but what is unclear is how the likes of Qantas, knowing the risk, protected their workers.
“We know Qantas crew who operated on flights with Ruby Princess passengers were not offered the opportunity to self-isolate or given any information on staying safe once they got off those flights.
“Workers who crewed flights with Ruby Princess passengers cleaned the planes and handled their baggage were terrified when they returned to their families that they would spread the virus and they were given no support from the airline.”