Finger-pointing over the Ruby Princess debacle won’t help solve coronavirus crisis | World news


There is nothing more unedifying than different levels of government finger-pointing during a crisis.

In the aftermath of the bushfires, there was sniping via the media as the prime minister’s office blamed the New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, for refusing offers of defence help.

Now the federal-state blame game has taken hold during the most serious crisis of our modern times: the spread of Covid-19.

Specifically, the fight is over who was responsible for letting 2,700 people off the Ruby Princess cruise ship in Sydney earlier this month, resulting in the release of a major wave of 133 infections in the Australian community.

The federal government is responsible for our borders and federal politicians of both stripes routinely remind us just how tough they are on border policy.

Except when it comes to pandemics.

Australian Border Force takes responsibility for checking passport control and customs. It checks visas and whether people are on banned lists, and it checks what people are bringing in. The federal Department of Agriculture is responsible for biosecurity – protecting our borders from agricultural diseases that could be in plant or animal material.

But it seems the question of preventing illness being imported rests with each state.

The explanation offered by the ABF commissioner, Michael Outram, was that there had been a number of communications between ABF, agriculture, the Ruby Princess and NSW health officials as the liner cruised toward Sydney to berth early in the morning on Thursday 19 March.

It will take a full inquiry to determine what really happened, but clearly the protocols for assessing risks of disease were inadequate and had not been worked through between the state and federal government, even though we are now weeks into this pandemic.

Despite knowing as early as mid February, when the Diamond Princess was quarantined in Yokohama and the world watched, horrified, as its Covid-19 positive count grew to the hundreds, the federal government continued to allow cruises to come and go from Australian waters.

And it made exceptions for local cruises.

Did it somehow think that cruises to New Zealand and the Pacific were safe?

In the case of the Ruby Princess there had been an outbreak of disease on a previous cruise before it set sail on an 11-day cruise to New Zealand. This had prompted NSW authorities to classify it as medium risk on 8 March.

There is now evidence emerging from studies of the Diamond Princess being conducted by the US Centre for Disease Control that the virus may be able to survive on surfaces for up to 17 days.

But it was not until 15 March that Scott Morrison announced a 30-day ban on cruise ships entering Australia.

A few days later the government announced exemptions for four vessels heading back to Australia, including the Ruby Princess. These cruises were carrying large numbers of Australian citizens and had originated in Australia. In the same way that we have allowed Australian citizens and residents to return by plane, the government decided to allow the ships to berth.

Now three out of four have now been linked to cases of Covid-19 in recent days.

In the case of the Ruby Princess there were ill patients on board showing flu-like symptoms and swabs taken, but no results.

Outram’s defence of ABF turned on the fact that it was NSW Health who gave the green light to the ship.

In what appears to have been a confusing and unclear set of communications between the ship, the ABF, agriculture and NSW Health as the ship approached Sydney harbour, it was determined that the ship was “low risk” and NSW health officials said they would not attend, despite there being ill patients on board.

Outram admits agriculture was the department that classified the vessel as low risk, but says NSW Health was the body that greenlit the arrival.

The chief health officer of NSW, Dr Kerry Chant, said: “Of course, with hindsight, we would have acted differently, had we known we had a Covid-positive cruise ship.”

She revealed that the government had put in place contingency plans to put passengers into hotels if there were identified cases of Covid-19.

But instead the ship was allowed to dock and passengers disembarked with the same instructions given to all those returning from overseas: self-isolate for 14 days.

But only once you reach home. So people took taxis, went to the airport, took domestic flights and kissed relatives.

Chant said she would look into reports that passengers were not given instructions to self-isolate when they disembarked, noting that this was an ABF responsibility as its officers processed passengers.

One can see how this might have happened. Outram said there were just six ABF officers to disembark 2,700 passengers. (They wore gloves and masks)

“Every single agency needs to take responsibility for our borders,” Berejiklian said on Wednesday. “Whether it’s a ship at a port, whether it’s a planeload of people coming in from overseas. We’re still having thousands of people coming in on planes every single day.

“All authorities have to step up, including NSW Health, including all the other authorities involved.

It should have happened weeks ago. And the federal government is the logical agency to make it happen.



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