Seeking accountability for the Ruby Princess debacle

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Police have boarded Ruby Princess searching for answers as to how so many deaths were allowed to occur (Screenshot via YouTube)

Questions are being raised as to who should be held responsible for the deaths brought on by the virus-ridden Ruby Princess cruise ship, writes Abul Rizvi.

THE HUNT FOR a scapegoat for the Ruby Princess debacle continues with Australian Border Force (ABF) now back in the gun because they gave permission for the ship to dock.

But there are two problems with the current focus on the ABF, NSW Health or the cruise ship master as the potential culprits.

Firstly, banning a ship carrying Australian citizen passengers is unlawful under the Citizenship Act unless the Government makes alternative arrangements for the Australian citizens to enter Australia.

Did the Government give the ABF such alternative options?

While the WA Government subsequently developed Rottnest Island as a quarantine option, did the Commonwealth Government have any such option for all seaports between February and March?

Does anyone really think the right course of action would have been to make the ship stay out at sea and let the passengers get sicker as the Japanese Government did with Diamond Princess in Yokohama Harbour?

Secondly, there could be any number of ships and planes that entered Australia in February and March that had Australian citizens on board who were carrying the virus, with the same impact as Ruby Princess.

It is easy in hindsight to focus on Ruby Princess and say that was the ship that should have been stopped because of the numbers that were subsequently found to be carrying the virus.

I would be a rich man if I could bet on the Melbourne Cup after it had been run.

No, the problem goes back to government policy decisions made in January on health screening at both airports and seaports.

While banning entry to non-citizens arriving from China was fine, it left a gaping hole.

And that was tens of thousands of Australian citizens returning from around the world during February and March until state governments put strict quarantining arrangements in place.

To find the real culprits for the Ruby Princess debacle, we need to go back to when the Government first decided in January what it would do in terms of health screening at the border.

Would it implement the border health screening actions set out in the Government’s long-standing pandemic management plan, to use full-body temperature scanners and targeted interviewing of passengers by border nurses?

That is the same process Singapore started using from 24 January.

For some reason, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and Health Minister Greg Hunt decided in January not to implement the border health screening actions clearly outlined in the plan and used by the Singapore Government.

But why might that be?

We know that full-body temperature scanners are not perfect. But recent research shows they will identify around 53 per cent of passengers with the virus.

In the case of Ruby Princess, once a number of passengers were picked up by temperature scanners, authorities would have been on alert and taken appropriate action.

So the alleged lack of effectiveness of temperature scanners could not have been the original reason for not using them — it is more of a post hoc justification.

Did the Government in January underestimate the danger COVID-19 posed?

That is quite possible given they would still have been distracted by the sports rorts affair.

It is certainly the case that implementing such strict border health screenings would have involved very significant cost, the need to hire a large number of staff including border nurses and to commandeer additional space at airports and seaports to undertake the health screening safely.

Was the Government in January still dreaming of its Budget surplus such that it would not countenance such expenditure or having a fight with the powerful private owners of most of Australia’s airport and seaports?

We may never know until the Government releases the cabinet papers that led to this decision.

Sadly, that may require waiting another 25 years and there is zero chance the Prime Minister will release the factors it took into consideration.

Abul Rizvi is an Independent Australia columnist and a former Deputy Secretary of the Department of Immigration, currently undertaking a PhD on Australia’s immigration policies. You can follow Abul on Twitter @RizviAbul.

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