Cruise

Ruby Princess “rushed” to Sydney Harbour for “urgent” COVID-19 testing, inquiry hears

Ali Coulton

Ruby Princess may not have been at fault for inaccurate health reporting and even rushed to Sydney Harbour to urgently test COVID-19 swabs, an inquest has heard.

Day four of the special commission of inquiry hearing seeking to uncover the circumstances around the Ruby Princess debacle was eventful, to say the least.

As noted in a release from Princess Cruises, the inquiry heard the ship continued to update the federal human health reporting system, which is separate to the acute respiratory disease log, into the evening before the ships disembarked.

Information supplied by the Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment shows that the ship updated the Maritime Arrival Reporting System (MARS) at 7.21pm on 18 March, which was seven hours prior to the ship berthing at Sydney’s Overseas Passenger Terminal.

It reported that 128 people on board had reported illness.

The inquiry previously heard that a list of sick patients, which was sent to NSW Health prior to the ship’s arrival in Sydney Harbour and was what was used to classify the ship as “low-risk”, was not up to date.

Authorities said at the time the updated list, which was given to NSW Health the day after disembarkation, would have changed the ships biosecurity rating from “low” to “medium” which would have meant health officers would need to board the ship to conduct a thorough screening of passengers.

However, the ship was graded low-risk and passengers were allowed to disembark without any screening on arrival.

The inquiry also heard the ship arrived in Sydney three hours early as it was in possession of COVID-19 swabs that urgently needed to be tested.

Port agent for Carnival Australia, Dobrila Tokovic confirmed she understood the ships 3am arrival was because it was “hurrying back to Sydney because the COVID-19 swabs needed testing and that was an urgent matter”.

Tokovic also said Australian Border Force knew that 11 passengers were in isolation and that she was “in some ways” surprised that NSW Health did not board the ship before it disembarked.

Meanwhile, prime minister Scott Morrison said Brett Walker, the commissioner for the inquiry, was “out of line” when his line of questioning caused a NSW Health official to break down during questioning.

On Wednesday Kelly-Anne Ressler, a senior epidemiologist for NSW Health, issued a tearful apology during a hearing of the inquiry, admitting it was not acceptable that more people on Ruby Princess were tested for influenza than COVID-19.

“I found that very distressing,” he told 2GB.

“I think it’s our nurses and doctors and first responders, they’re all doing a great job. But spare a thought also for those public health officials.”

Morrison acknowledged that people aren’t perfect and that they aren’t going to get it right every single time.

“…I thank her for the great job that she’s been seeking to do and I know we’ve got to get to the truth on this sort of stuff…

“But I found that a bit out of line, Ray, and I think to see her reduced to that under that sort of aggressive line of what would appear questioning, I know you’ve got to get the balance right on this one. And I would hope that Mr Walker would reflect on that.”

At least 20 deaths and almost 700 cases of COVID-19 can be linked to the ship, which disembarked around 2,700 passengers in Sydney on 19 March.

Featured image: Port agent for Carnival Australia, Dobrila Tokovic (source: Special commission of inquiry live stream)


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