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Ruby Princess: A timeline of fatality

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A series of mistakes were made that led to the Ruby Princess being responsible for a large number of COVID-19 deaths, as presented here by Sue Arnold.

THE ILL-FATED Ruby Princess cruise liner has been identified as responsible for over 10% of Australia’s COVID-19 infections. An angry public outcry over the deaths of 14 (at the time of writing) with more than 620 infected passengers has forced the NSW Government’s Police Commissioner Mick Fuller to launch a criminal investigation.

Commissioner Fuller said:

“The only way I can get to the bottom of whether our national biosecurity laws and our state laws were broken is through a criminal investigation.”

However, what is unclear is how a NSW criminal inquiry can investigate national biosecurity laws. There’s also considerable concern over the relationship between Commissioner Fuller and Prime Minister Scott Morrison. As former neighbours, Fuller’s involvement in the Angus Taylor forged document inquiry was questionable. Morrison called Fuller in the midst of the inquiry which subsequently found no charges against the Minister.

It’s important to start this timeline on the Ruby Princess saga with the Diamond Princess saga in Japan. Mainstream media has continued to ignore the global focus on this month-long drama which highlighted the real dangers of the coronavirus on cruise liners.

1 February: Diamond Princess passenger diagnosed with coronavirus six days after leaving the ship.

4 February: Ten people on board the Diamond Princess in Yokohama confirmed positive for coronavirus. Ten cases soon turned into 705. Six people died. Bioethicist Kelly Hills commented that “cruise ships are made of surfaces that are really sticky for viruses”.

16 February: Passengers finally leave the ship. Sick and healthy passengers flew back to the U.S. on the same plane against CDC advice. Fourteen infected Americans together with 300 others. Thirty-six passengers on emergency flights were confirmed with the virus.

8 March: Ruby Princess docked in Sydney with 158 sick passengers on board, 13 with high fevers.

Illnesses were logged on the automated online Australian Government Maritime Arrivals Reporting System (M.A.R.S.). Breaches are an offence under the Biosecurity Act.

Ship’s master emailed Sydney port authority officials to report no illnesses onboard, all can disembark.

The Weekend Australian revealed Captain told NSW Vessel Traffic Services no ill passengers on board.

Four passengers tested positive after the ship docked in Sydney.

8/9 March: Ruby Princess embarked for New Zealand without any quarantining or disinfection and carrying 2,700 passengers.        

14 March: Australian Government ordered anyone returning from overseas to isolate for 14 days. The directive applied to cruise passengers.

15 March: NSW Health media release:

As agreed by the National Cabinet, all entrants to Australia, including returning travellers, will be required to self isolate for 14 days. NSW will continue to support the Commonwealth Government in implementing this requirement. If any individual fails to do so, the NSW Chief Health Officer may issue an order to forcibly require compliance. Any enforcement required would be in consultation with NSW Police.

18 March: A worker on the cruise made a 17-minute triple-O call about two passengers who required medical assistance. He said an ambulance supervisor was concerned about potential infection of passengers on the ship and escalated to call the NSW Police Marine Area Command.

19 March: Ruby Princess returned to Sydney and all 2,700 passengers disembarked despite the fact that the swab results of a number of sick passengers swab results were not available.  

Sydney man Bill Beerens tested positive for the virus in hospital on the day he disembarked.

Elderly couple Rona and Michael Doubrin said they had symptoms towards the end of the cruise but had not been concerned because they had not been told to practice social distancing:

“...we were lying in the sun, eating in the dining room, dancing, seeing shows.”

One passenger was told, “you can get a train home”.

20 March: NZ Ministry for Health confirmed Ruby Princess left NZ five days prior with three Australian passengers and one crew member testing positive for COVID-19. So Ruby Princess and presumably the Australian authorities knew the ship was infected.

22 March: Four cruise ships given special permission to dock in Australia despite a 30-day coronavirus ban. No details on which ships but Ruby Princess included.

23 March:  PM Scott Morrison said the mistake is the responsibility of state officials.

24 March: Australian woman who flew home to London after disembarking told BBC that:

“Nothing was said at any time about anyone being sick on board. It was a distinct lack of information coming through from Princess the entire time.”  

She and her husband had been on two full flights back to London. Now sick.

BBC reports four other cruise ships into Sydney linked to confirmed COVID-19 cases. Infection on cruise ships well known.

25 March: NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian press conference.

One reporter asked:

“Surely Australians, NSW people need to know who is responsible. It’s not good enough now to just share that blame. ...will there be consequences and will someone lose their job?”

Ms Berejiklian replied:

“All of us have to take responsibility.”

Dr Kerry Chant, NSW Chief Health Officer revealed at the press conference:

“...on a previous cruise ship for the Ruby Princess there was an indication that there was an outbreak onboard the ship so that was investigated.”

Health teams elevated the risk from a low-risk scenario to medium risk.

25 March:  Border Force blamed NSW Health for letting Ruby Princess dock without coronavirus checks.

A week earlier, Scott Morrison announced a 30-day ban on foreign cruise ships docking in Australia but the Government made an exemption for four already on their way, including Ruby Princess.

Three of these ships were subsequently found to be carrying people infected with COVID-19. Passengers were permitted to disembark with the standard advice that they should self-isolate for 14 days when they reached home.

The Federal Government also issued new biosecurity orders.

1 April: Six crew members taken to Sydney hospitals for treatment of respiratory illness. They were taken in the middle of the night.

2 April: NSW Health identifies current cruise ships with confirmed COVID-19 cases:

  • Ovation of the Seas: 74 cases, docked 18 March;
  • Voyager of Seas: 34 cases, docked 18 March;
  • Ruby Princess: 337, as well as three crew members, docked 19 March; and
  • Celebrity Solstice: 11 cases, docked 19 March. 

3 April: NSW Health puts out a press release.  

The reasons for ambulance transport requested by the treating doctor to NSW Health’s assessment panel were one passenger had a heart condition likely caused by an infection which was responding to influenza treatment and the second passenger was suffering severe lower back pain but was also receiving treatment for flu.

 

Under the Commonwealth Department of Health cruise protocols, an ILI ( influenza-like illness) outbreak is defined when “more than one per cent of the ships total passengers and crew have an influenza-like illness”.

 

The Ruby Princess had 2,647 passengers and 1,148 crew. The ship reported to NSW Health there were 104 acute respiratory infections of which 36 people had presented to the ship’s clinic with influenza-like illness during the cruise and its numbers fell short of the definition of an “outbreak”.

 

The Commonwealth Department of Health protocol on managing novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19 risk from cruise ship) states “provided there are no concerns about the COVID-19 risk profile of the ship or suspected COVID-19 cases reported …the ship may be allowed to continue voyage while samples are tested”.

It also said:

To date, there have been 342 confirmed cases of COVID-19 diagnosed in NSW in passengers who all acquired their infection while on, or in some cases, possibly before boarding the Ruby Princess cruise.

 

Transmission of COVID-19 amongst these passengers could not have been prevented by NSW Health staff. No cases of COVID-19 were identified onboard the ship before it docked.

April 3:  Gladys Berejiklian defended the Government’s handling of Ruby Princess on 2GB:

“NSW Health assures me that they exceeded their protocols in what they had to do.

 

We’ve had advice that health authorities followed the protocols. The protocols have since been changed.”

4 April: NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard defends experts who handled coronavirus outbreak on Ruby Princess:

“Can I just say that the experts who made the decision were the best in the world? Each of the staff of the chief health officer who made the decision made it to the best of their ability. And those people are experts in their field.”

5 April: Daily Telegraph reported: ‘Secret midnight call that allowed “death ship” to dock’.

‘As emergency authorities exchanged panicked phone calls about the risk of COVID-19 on the Ruby Princess, senior cruise line officials rang the NSW Port Authority and got a docking ban overturned.’

Fuller launched an investigation which covered ‘actions of the port authority, ambulance, police, the NSW Health Department and Carnival Australia’. Homicide squad will lead a criminal investigation. No mention of federal involvement, NSW Minister for Health, NSW Premier, or whether any federal MPs and family members were on Ruby Princess as rumoured.

April 6: Eleven passengers dead. Six hundred passengers tested positive for the virus. Ruby Princess accounts for 10% of COVID-19 cases in Australia and docked at Port Kembla with more than 200 infected out of 1,040 crew.

The timeline makes very clear that the appalling death toll and infection rate are a direct result of gross Federal and State Government responsibility. Relatives grieving for their lost family members may well describe this debacle as manslaughter.

There has never been a more urgent need for an independent criminal investigation into the actions of the Federal and NSW Governments in relation to Ruby Princess.

Sue Arnold is an IA columnist and freelance investigative journalist. You can follow Sue on Twitter @koalacrisis.

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