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Australia’s worst coronavirus cluster

May 13, 2020 • 15m 59s

The decision to allow passengers on the Ruby Princess to disembark led to Australia’s biggest coronavirus cluster, and it’s now being investigated by a number of inquiries. Today, Karen Middleton on what happened in the hours leading up to the ship’s docking.

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Australia’s worst coronavirus cluster

222 • May 13, 2020

Australia’s worst coronavirus cluster

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

In the early hours of March 19 the Ruby Princess was allowed to dock at Sydney’s Overseas Passenger Terminal.

Archival tape -- reporter:

The Ruby Princess New South Wales Health led off two thousand seven hundred passengers from that ship.

RUBY:

Those passengers included 128 people who had reported being sick and 13 them had been tested for Covid-19.

Archival tape -- reporter:

Health authorities let them disembark before those tests came back.

RUBY:

Results of those tests hadn’t been released when passengers poured out of the ship and into the community.

Archival tape -- reporter:

The total number of known cases linked to the ship is nearly 600. That's around 1 in 10 of all cases nationwide.

Archival tape -- reporter:

Three passengers from the Ruby Princess cruise ship treated in Tasmania before their deaths are suspected of being the source of the state's coronavirus cluster.

RUBY:

The decision to let those passengers disembark... helped spread Covid-19 across Australia.

Archival tape -- unknown:

This is the greatest public health disaster in the history of this state.

Archival tape -- unkown:

This was a major stuff up.

RUBY:

Today, Karen Middleton on who is responsible for what happened on the Ruby Princess.

Karen, the Ruby Princess arrived on March 19. But that wasn’t its first docking in Sydney - it had actually docked at Sydney Harbour just ten days earlier. So tell me what happened then?

KAREN:

That's right. So the ship had done a similar trip earlier in March and it docked on the 8th of March and offloaded its passengers.

As part of the protocols that the New South Wales health authorities had adopted, they said, well, could you make an announcement to all of the passengers and crew and say, if anyone's feeling unwell that could they please gather in this particular spot, they chose one of the restaurants on the ship. And then New South Wales health officials were boarding the ship to examine these people to work out whether they needed to be tested for coronavirus

RUBY:

Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

KAREN:

One of the officials who boarded the ship on that first voyage was Kelly Anne Ressler, who's an epidemiologist. She's also now given evidence to the special commission of inquiry into the Ruby Princess.

Archival tape -- Richard Beazley:

Instead of seeing 170 people, there were over 360 people in that restaurant?

Archival tape -- Ressler:

Yes.

Archival tape -- Richard Beazley:

Was that a surprise to you?

Archival tape -- Ressler:

Yes.

KAREN:

When they got onboard the ship they discovered there were 360 people gathered in one of these restaurants, which left them a bit taken aback because there was a lot more than they were expecting.

Archival tape -- Richard Beazley:

Did you ask any questions about why there are so many more people than we have been told was on the log?

Archival tape -- Ressler:

I remember walking in and saying to somebody, “Are all of these people here for assessment?” And they said, “Yes.”

Archival tape -- Richard Beazley:

Was that a conversation you had with the ship’s doctor?

KAREN:

They then examine those people, conduct temperature tests and other examinations. And based on that, a smaller subset of those people were swabbed. And those swaps were sent off to be tested for Covid-19.

The passengers were actually ultimately allowed to get off before the results came back, despite the fact that the pandemic had advanced over those previous few days, people were allowed to get off on it and to go home again. And there wasn't any further screening beyond what was done by those officials on the ship.

RUBY:

Okay, so when Ruby Princess docked the first time, on March 8, health officials boarded the ship. But even though they tested a number of passengers, everyone was still let off before those results came back. but thankfully, in that instance, there were no cases of Covid-19 on board.

So how does that compare to what happened the next time the Ruby Princess docked in Sydney?

KAREN:

Well, once those first lot of passengers had been offloaded, the next lot of passengers were loaded on the same day and the ship departed for another round trip to New Zealand, which was a voyage that we're now all very focused on. This time, though, no New South Wales health officials boarded the ship.

Passengers were still allowed to disembark that second time, as we know, without test results coming through and the doctor onboard the ship, Ilse Von Watzdorf, was surprised that passengers were allowed off the ship.

Archival tape -- Watzdorf:

I was surprised that we were allowed to do that without waiting for the results to come through.

KAREN:

They had lodged an acute respiratory diseases log with the New South Wales health authorities that showed that there were a number of people, I think it was about 104 who had respiratory symptoms. And a subset of those people, 36 of those people also had a fever.

Archival tape -- Watzdorf:

We said we have two patients that need to be medically disembarked. I think the words they used were we were worried this was a bogus call...

KAREN:

The doctor, Dr Watzdorf main contact on shore was Kelly-Anne Wrestler, the official who'd been among those that went on shore the previous time the ship had docked and she'd discussed that log with Kelly-Anne Ressler. And that was then forwarded on to the expert assessment panel of four people in New South Wales Health and used as the basis for their assessment and whether the ship could dock.

Now, the way they were making that assessment was based on a trigger of 1 per cent. They were looking at the number of people who had both a fever and respiratory symptoms. And if that added up to 1 per cent or more of all the people on the ship, then that would trigger shifting the ship from a low risk of infection to a medium risk. And it would likely have triggered sending that boarding party from New South Wales Health back on board.

RUBY:

Okay so that low risk assessment by New South Wales health is the reason why officials didn't go on board the ship this second time, even though the Covid-19 pandemic had rapidly advanced in that ten days. So was that assessment accurate?

KAREN:

The problem was that New South Wales health wasn't actually following its own protocols properly. They had only been looking at that subset of passengers and crew who had a fever. Now that meant that it was just under 1 per cent, not very much under mind you, especially in an environment where they were dealing with a very fast moving virus that was just a whisker London and 1 per cent.

But if they'd followed the protocol properly and looked at all the people with respiratory symptoms, that would have been definitely over 1 per cent, in fact over 2 per cent. And it should have triggered that rating to medium rather than low.

RUBY:

And that decision is one of the key elements that's being investigated by a NSW Special Commission of Inquiry, which is looking into the Ruby Princess?

KAREN:

That’s right. The counsel assisting Richard Beazley and the commissioner, Bret Walker, questioned Kelly-Anne Ressler about her decision making.

Archival tape -- Richard Beazley:

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 New South Wales health in that regard?

KAREN:

She was trying to explain her decision making and got quite upset.

Archival tape -- Ressler:

Commissioner, all I can say is that I'm very sorry it turned out the way it did. It was not our intention. Myself and my colleagues at the public health unit were working very hard.

KAREN:

She broke down into tears.

Archival tape -- Ressler:

We did what we could. And if we could do it again, it would be very different.

RUBY:

Karen, what else do we know about what went wrong on the Ruby Princess?

KAREN:

Well, it seems like there were a series of bungles. The swabs were not given high priority in the lab. It seems instead of being tested immediately as cruise ships swabs usually are, they weren't labeled properly as urgent and they were transferred for testing, but not done by the lab for another 24 hours. So even though the ship docked in the early hours of March 19, the results didn't come back until the 20th of March. And by that stage, the passengers, 2700 of them, were long gone and it headed to other cities, other towns.

RUBY:

And the consequences of that, as we now know, were hundreds of cases of Covid-19 in Australia, in fact more than one in 10 of the country’s total cases are linked to the Ruby Princess.

KAREN:

That’s right.

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Karen, passengers were allowed to disembark from the Ruby Princess before Covid-19 test results were in. But were there any signs the ship was carrying passengers with the virus?

KAREN:

Well, on the 18th of March, the ship's doctor contacted the port agent who works for Carnival Cruises and said, could you book us a slot for our arrival? And also could you book two ambulances because I have two chronically ill patients. She explained that those two patients were ill with other ailments, but that they had also been swabbed for Covid-19.

The first one was Anthony lonn Dero, who had a heart condition and she believed he'd had a small heart attack. And the other one was Leslie Bakan, who was suffering from a femoral nerve compression and was having trouble walking, but had also been swabbed because both of them also had acute respiratory symptoms and a temperature.

Both of those patients were among the three who were swabbed and came back positive for Covid-19 and very sadly, just two days after they were taken off the ship. Leslie Bacon, in fact, died from the disease.

RUBY:

Karen, one of the questions that's been raised repeatedly here is who was ultimately responsible to that? How involved was the federal government in the Ruby Princess situation?

KAREN:

What this is really revealed is the complexity of responsibilities when a cruise ship comes into port because there are federal and state agencies that are responsible.

There's the Port Authority. There's New South Wales Health in the case of New South Wales. But state and territory health authorities. There's the Australian Border Force, which is within the Department of Home Affairs, that has a role in terms of customs and immigration. And then there's also the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment that has a role for biosecurity.

Now, they manage biosecurity, particularly when it comes to plants and animals, but they're not responsible for human biosecurity. That is the responsibility of the Commonwealth medical officer, Professor Brendan Murphy, currently, who we've all seen so much talking about, Covid-19. But he delegates the powers under that authority to the state and territory health authorities when it comes to the health of passengers on a cruise ship. So it does start to look a bit circular.

We know that there was permission to dock. Known as Pratik, given initially for the ship. And then somehow late on the night of the 18th, it was withdrawn and then given again. What isn't yet clear through the course of the commission of inquiry is how that came about. And that will, I guess, come out in evidence in the coming days.

In the end, there are a number of decisions that need to be made and a number of agencies that have an interest and a responsibility and the commission of inquiry and a Senate inquiry that's also looking at the federal government's response to Covid-19 are trying to unravel those responsibilities and work out where the buck stops in the end.

RUBY:

So Karen, looking at this timeline and also the evidence that these various inquiries have heard so far, does it seem to you like this is a situation that could have been avoided?

KAREN:

I think so, yeah. I mean, it looks like at the very least, the ship should have been given a higher rating And officials should have gone on board and conducted further testing. So they're obviously needed to be a change there so that passengers don't get off the ship until all the Covid-19 testing has been undertaken. You could argue that maybe more people should have been tested, then were.

It's also interesting what's emerged that hasn't necessarily been obvious publicly that cruise ships are sort of considered low risk generally for quarantine and for customs and immigration. And so on a round trip like this to New Zealand or one of our other close neighbors in Pacific for about the last 40 years, there hasn't really been much in the way of passport checks on the way back.

that there is this sort of, you might say, a double standard that that cruise ship passengers are held to a different standard than you would be subjected to if you were coming into Australia from New Zealand through an airport where you would certainly face a rigorous checking of your passport and your luggage.

So at the moment, based on the evidence that we've heard, it looks like the questions most sharply being asked are focused on the actions of New South Wales health. But as we know, with inquiries like this, more information can emerge and it may be more complicated than that.

And maybe that's something that all of the governments need to look at in future, that they need to streamline that where cruise ships are involved so that we don't have any kind of repeat of this debacle ever again.

RUBY:

Karen, thanks so much for your time today.

KAREN:

Thanks, Ruby.

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RUBY:

Also in the news...

The Treasurer Josh Fydenburg has outlined what he called a "sobering" economic outlook.. in an update to parliament yesterday.

The Federal Budget was due to be released yesterday but was delayed because of Covid-19.. and is now expected in October.

Mr Frydenberg said the underlying cash deficit at the end of March was 22.4 billion dollars.

**

NSW Police have charged a man over the 1988 cold case murder of Scott Johnson.

The 27-year-old's American mathematician's body was discovered at the bottom of a cliff in Manly, Sydney.. more than 32 years ago.

His death has been the subject of three coronial inquests.. with the most recent inquest finding he was the victim of a gay hate crime.

Detectives charged a 49-year-old man with murder in Sydney yesterday afternoon.

**

And 2GB’s Alan Jones has announced he will retire from his top rating breakfast radio show at the end of this month.

Over the course of Jones’ career, he was found by the media regulator to have broadcast material likely to encourage violence ahead of the Cronulla riots, and was widely condemned for his comments about female leaders including Jacinda Ardern and Julia Gillard.

**

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see you tomorrow.

The Ruby Princess is responsible for more than 10 per cent of Australia’s cases of Covid-19. The decision to allow the ship’s passengers to disembark is now being investigated by a number of state and federal inquiries. Today, Karen Middleton on what happened in the lead-up to Australia’s biggest coronavirus cluster.

Guest: Chief political correspondent for The Saturday Paper Karen Middleton.

Background reading:

What happened with the Ruby Princess in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem. Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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222: Australia’s worst coronavirus cluster