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Inside the Ruby Princess: What went wrong

Aug 19, 2020 • 15m 54s

An inquiry examining the Ruby Princess saga has delivered its findings, six months after the ship docked. The cruise ship remains Australia’s largest coronavirus cluster. Today, Malcolm Knox, on who was responsible and what the inquiry found.

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Inside the Ruby Princess: What went wrong

290 • Aug 19, 2020

Inside the Ruby Princess: What went wrong

RUBY:

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

The Ruby Princess saga has been one of the longest running controversies of Australia’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Six months after the ship docked, bringing with it hundreds of infected passengers, an inquiry looking into the incident has delivered its findings.

Today, Malcolm Knox, who wrote about the Ruby Princess in the latest issue of The Monthly, on who was responsible for Australia’s biggest coronavirus cluster.

RUBY:

Malcolm, how early did we know that cruise ships were a huge risk factor in terms of the spread of coronavirus?

MALCOLM:

Cruise ships were known to be risky from well back.

Archival tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“3 new coronavirus cases onboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship, bringing the total number to 64…”

MALCOLM:

By mid-February, there were more than 100 infected with coronavirus on the Diamond Princess, which was now in quarantine in Yokohama.

Archival tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“Recording another 137 cases of coronavirus in a little more than 24 hours, bringing the total number of people infected to at least 355.”

MALCOLM:

By the 14th April, 14 people had died on board from the disease. So that was very much a cautionary tale at the front of mind for health authorities all around the world.

So this was why New South Wales Health put together an advisory panel to look very specifically at cruise ships and the risk factors associated with them back as early as late January, early February. And it was on the 12th of February that New South Wales put together a panel to begin drafting procedures for how to assess the risk of incoming cruise ships.

RUBY:

Mmhm. And the cruise ship that’s attracted the most attention is the now infamous Ruby Princess. So can you tell me more about that ship and its passengers?

MALCOLM:

So the Ruby Princess was doing these kind of round trips, pleasure cruises from Sydney. That usually took about 10 to 14 days. They would dock in places like Auckland, Wellington, other ports in New Zealand. They were heavily populated by older people. It got to New Zealand, did a couple of stops in the South Island, by that stage a few people had presented with influenza like illnesses. The ship's doctor Elsa Van Wartzdorf was treating them and she'd been given a box of 25 swabs for coronavirus testing to take on the trip. And she swabbed five people and in Wellington, those five swabs all came back negative. There were a number of people who tested positive to influenza A, the doctor thought that she might have had a small influenza A outbreak on board.

RUBY:

Ok so there were people with respiratory illnesses on board but there wasn’t yet any evidence that passengers were infected with coronavirus. With the virus spreading around the world, including on cruise ships, what sort of precautions were being taken on the Ruby Princess?

MALCOLM:

I think you'd say that the precautions were sort of understandable in the world of mid-March, which was, you know, a lot of hand washing was being recommended. Hand sanitizer was everywhere. The public toilets, people were were encouraged not to use the public toilets onboard. But at the same time, a lot of social events were taking place. There were still theater shows. There were still dances.

There were still painting classes and karaoke nights. And there were even, there was a St. Patrick's Day party and even a farewell party on the last night, where people were not generally socially distancing. Meanwhile, there were more people presenting with influenza-like symptoms on board in those last few days. And the number of people with symptoms really shot up very quickly in the final 24 hours of the voyage.

RUBY:

Malcolm, what happened when the ship did dock in Sydney, at a time when there were so many people with symptoms on board?

MALCOLM:

The New South Wales expert assessment panel deemed the ship low risk, which meant that they didn't even want to send any staff on board to do temperature testing. This surprised the doctor on board and some of the staff on board. If they'd followed the guidelines strictly, it would have raised the ship to medium risk. One of their main concerns (this is the doctors) one of their main concerns was the Diamond Princess.

And the doctors were probably thinking ‘look, we don't want to leave people onboard because the virus can spread very quickly in that situation, we want to let them get home, we'll tell them to self isolate once they get home but really, the best thing to do to avoid a spread is to get people off the ship’. And that was what happened on the morning of 19th March.

Archival tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“Late last week about three thousand passengers were able to disembark a cruise ship known as the Ruby Princess in Sydney. They were given clearance to do so…”

Archival tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“Passengers were getting in buses, taxis and boarding planes”

MALCOLM:

We've seen the pictures of people crowding around the taxi stands and the bus stands at the overseas passenger terminal at Circular Quay.

Archival tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“Heading to cities and towns across the country including Toowoomba, Wollongong, Port Augusta, Darwin and Melbourne…”

MALCOLM:

Clearly not socially distancing, most of them not wearing masks and people jumping onto public transport, even a lot of American passengers going straight to Sydney Airport and getting on a plane back to the USA.

RUBY:

And we know now that passengers started testing positive for coronavirus almost immediately after they disembarked from the Ruby Princess...

MALCOLM:

Yes. In total, there were 600 people from that ship that we know of that tested positive for Covid-19. The number of fatalities from the ship steadily built over the next 2 to 3 weeks when people, all of them elderly people, tested positive, were hospitalized.

Archival tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“Three more coronavirus deaths are being linked to the Ruby Princess cruise ship.”

Archival tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“I can confirm that the woman who died contracted Covid-19 on the Ruby Princess cruise ship…”

MALCOLM:

As far as we know, there are, there are 21, 22 deaths from the ship, 13 of them in Australia and the others overseas, mainly in the USA.

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RUBY:

Malcolm, the Ruby Princess ultimately was responsible for Australia’s biggest coronavirus cluster and a number of deaths. What has been the fallout?

MALCOLM:

There was a great deal of criticism, as you'd imagine, of the NSW government.

Archival tape -- Unidentified Speaker:

“Last week the premier blamed border force, this week she blamed the captain of the ship. She has taken no responsibility, the government has taken no responsibility at all.”

MALCOLM:

And the realization very quickly was that the administration of cruise ship arrivals in a big port like Sydney was a ‘dog's breakfast’ of different agencies.

Archival tape -- Unidentified Speaker:

“When I spoke to NSW Health Government on Friday night, I said what I’d seen in Victoria, the way that vessel was handled was done very well. And had that occurred in this case, what happened wouldn’t have happened.”

MALCOLM:

With the Federal Department of Agriculture, the New South Wales Department of Health, the New South Wales Port Authority, the Department of Immigration and Australian Border Force all involved in some way, yet without any clear chain of authority.

Archival tape -- Unidentified Speaker:

“I didn’t know anything about the Ruby Princess. I was dealing with all the other issues that were obviously being dealt with…”

MALCOLM:

So that was why the New South Wales government set up a commission of inquiry to look at the system failures that had led to this happening.

Archival tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“Good evening, it was the disaster that spread Covid-19 across Australia and around the world. And tonight, who's responsible for the Ruby Princess debacle has been laid bare…”

RUBY:

And the results of that inquiry were released on Friday. What did it find?

MALCOLM:

Essentially, the inquiry found that mistakes made by the expert assessment panel of New South Wales Health was responsible for the disembarkation of the Ruby Princess and the subsequent spread of the illness.

Archival tape -- Unidentified Reporter:

“So the Ruby Princess inquiry on Friday is finding, in scathing terms, against NSW Health around how it managed the departure of COVID infected passengers from that cruise ship in March…”

MALCOLM:

So unfortunately for those doctors involved, it was in essence, a report that found them responsible, blamed them. They made mistakes. Doctors do make mistakes to classify the ship as low risk, meaning, in effect, do nothing as reports. It is as inexplicable as it is unjustifiable. It was a serious mistake.

RUBY:

So the key focus of the report was the fact that the ship was designated low risk by New South Wales health, which is why passengers were allowed to disembark.

MALCOLM:

Yeah, that's right. And there was no escaping that.

RUBY:

So it really identified some mistakes that were made by New South Wales Health but what about all of the other agencies that played a role in what happened?

MALCOLM:

There were failures across the board. For instance, by Carnival Cruises not to have a larger number of swabs for COVID on board the ship. There were administrative failures, which is by Australian Border Force, by the Port Authority. Nothing ran well. Border Force had a very minor administrative role in clearing the ship after it had been cleared on health ground by New South Wales Health. Border Force has no doctors. It has no epidemiologists. So even if Border Force had put their hand up and said nobody get off, what could it do? Well, it could only refer the matter back to the doctors who had already cleared the ship to disembark. So the accusations of Border Force being responsible were more driven by politics.

RUBY:

Hmm. And what has the fallout been since the report was made public?

MALCOLM:

Given that the commissioner found really it was a mistake made by doctors, there was no systemic problem. There was no political cover up or anything like that. All that was left for the New South Wales Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, to do was to say sorry.

Archival tape -- Gladys Berejiklian:

“Can I now apologize unreservedly to anybody who suffered as a result of the mistakes that were outlined in the report undertaken by individuals…”

MALCOLM:

As premier, she was ultimately the person who was overseeing the government and she could do nothing but apologize.

Archival tape -- Gladys Berejiklian:

“I want to say I can’t imagine what it would be like having a loved one or being someone yourself that continues to suffer and experience trauma as a result and I want to apologise unreservedly…”

MALCOLM:

And she placed particular emphasis on apologizing to 62 people who contracted COVID as a secondary or tertiary infection.

Archival tape -- Gladys Berejiklian:

“Those 62 people who weren’t on the ship but somehow contracted the virus as a consequence of that disembarkation and I want to say…”

MALCOLM:

And the Chief Health Officer in New South Wales, Kerry Chant, also apologized.

Archival tape -- Kerry Chant:

“Before I begin my report can I also echo the words of the premier, I would like to express my apologies for the impact of the mistakes on health and wellbeing of the community…”

MALCOLM:

One thing that I thought was quite admirable in the authority was the commissioner assuring the witnesses that he was not on a witch hunt. He was not out to find a new person to blame for it all. His terms of reference were to improve the system so that this kind of thing shouldn't happen again. And that was the purpose and mission of the inquiry.

RUBY:

Malcolm, thank you so much for your time today.

MALCOLM:

Thank you.

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RUBY:

Also in the news..

The inquiry into Victoria’s hotel quarantine program has heard that one family of four who returned to Australia was responsible for 90 percent of the state’s coronavirus infections.

All four members of the family tested positive to COVID-19. Following those cases, three people who worked at the Rydges hotel in Melbourne also tested positive. The Rydges outbreak then spread throughout the community.

The inquiry also heard that an outbreak at the Stamford hotel is responsible for most of the remaining cases of coronavirus in Victoria.

And in the US the Democratic National Convention has gotten underway. The four-day presidential nominating event has been transformed by the coronavirus pandemic, and is taking place online.

The event, which marks the official launch of Biden’s presidential bid, opened with speeches from high profile political figures including Bernie Sanders and Michelle Obama.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See ya tomorrow.

An inquiry examining the Ruby Princess saga has delivered its findings, six months after the ship docked. The cruise ship remains Australia’s largest coronavirus cluster. Today, Malcolm Knox, on who was responsible and what the inquiry found.

Guest: Writer for The Monthly Malcolm Knox.

Background reading:

Storm in a port: The unfolding disaster of the Ruby Princess in 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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290: Inside the Ruby Princess: What went wrong