The Ruby Princess: How could this have happened?

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Questions have arisen as to how Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton can claim to be keeping Australians safe when passengers infected with COVID-19 Ruby Princess was allowed to disembark six days ago (Screenshots via YouTube)

Questions must be asked as to how the Ruby Princess was allowed to enter the country, writes Abul Rizvi.

The RUBY PRINCESS, along with a number of other cruise ships that arrived in Australia around the same time, will go down in Australian history as a super spreader of disease and death.

The coronavirus initially entered Australia through people carrying the virus into the country. Thus, Australia’s first line of defence against the virus was at airports and seaports.

Being an island, Australia was better placed to prevent entry of the virus, or at least slow its entry, especially with the new Department of Home Affairs (DHA) assuming control of all border functions.

Remember being told the new Home Affairs portfolio would make us safer than ever and that was because the Morrison Government’s first priority is the safety of Australians? That just makes the disaster of the Ruby Princess all the more surprising.

To understand what went wrong, there is merit in going back into the chronology of the virus and how different governments responded in terms of border controls and checks.

A chronology of the virus

17 NOVEMBER 2019

According to Chinese Government officials, the first coronavirus case was confirmed on 17 November 2019.

12 JANUARY 2020

However, it was not until 12 January 2020 that the Chinese State broadcaster reported 'a new viral outbreak was first detected in the city of Wuhan, China'.

20 JANUARY 2020

A ‘pneumonia of unknown cause’ was reported on 20 January 2020 by the Chinese Centre of Disease Control and Prevention. On the same day, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang publicly urged “decisive and effective efforts to prevent and control the epidemic”.

Given how closely the Australian Government monitors Chinese media, by that stage, our Government would have known of the threat of the virus spreading to Australia given the enormous volume of people movement between Australia and China.

21 JANUARY 2020

On 21 January, the World Health Organisation (WHO) issued its first situation report on the virus.

24 JANUARY 2020

Singapore immigration and port authorities started temperature checking of all new arrivals on 24 January and the Russian Far East closed its border to China.

25 JANUARY 2020

On 25 January, Hong Kong declared a state of emergency and the next day banned all residents of Wuhan from entering Hong Kong.

27 JANUARY 2020

Mongolia closed its border with China on 27 January; Malaysia banned all travellers from Hubei and surrounding provinces on the same day.

28 JANUARY 2020

From 28 January, the Philippines and Sri Lanka suspended visa-on-arrival for Chinese nationals.

29 JANUARY 2020

On 29 January, PNG banned all travellers from Asia, including Indonesia.

30 JANUARY 2020

The WHO would issue another ten situation reports on the virus before the end of January and on 30 January, it declared the virus a 'public health emergency of international concern'.

A week before this (on 24 January), the Vietnamese authorities ceased all flights from Wuhan and by 30 January had shut down all flights from China.

Australia’s border response

The Australian Government announced it would “deny entry to Australia for people who have left or transited through mainland China from February 1”. Around the same time as the Trump Administration.

Australia was far from “among the first" to close its border to China, as some in the Government have claimed.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is reported to have said as part of the 1 February announcement that

“... there'll be advanced screening and reception arrangements put into place at the major airports.


... There'll also be thermometers which are provided to those airports and we're working with those airport authorities now to ensure we can put those arrangements in place.

A few key points about these announcements.

Firstly, there is no mention of seaports — perhaps just an omission or was it the case that the new screening arrangements did not apply to seaports?

Secondly, were the thermometers provided to airport authorities or to Government officials doing the screening? Either way, how were the thermometers used, if they were used at all? And were they also provided to seaports such as Circular Quay?

Finally, apart from providing arrivals with an information sheet, exactly what were the "advanced screening and reception arrangements"?

The Ruby Princess

Many arrivals, including from cruise ships such as the Ruby Princess, have reported nothing more than receiving an information sheet on arrival.

NSW Health officials have said they followed national guidelines which allow passengers to disembark if the route is considered "low risk".

But what of the role of our famous border protectors, Peter Dutton and Mike Pezzullo, who said the new DHA portfolio would keep Australians safe?

Did they also consider the Ruby Princess "low risk"? What border screening actually took place for the Ruby Princess is an issue on which Dutton and Pezzullo have been awfully quiet.

Border Force Commissioner Mike Outram said on 23 March that he has asked his officers,

"... when they're boarding a ship that’s coming from international waters, to ask the master a simple question — has anyone on this vessel got flu-like symptoms? If the answer is yes, nobody will be getting off that vessel."

Two issues arise from Outram’s response. Firstly, was this arrangement instituted before or after the Ruby Princess fiasco? Secondly, on such a critical life and death issue, is such a process really adequate?

Temperature Checking

On 23 March, Senator Michaelia Cash told the Senate:

“... we’ve implemented additional screening of passengers at Australian airports. This has included implementing enhanced health screening and temperature testing arrangements for arrivals from high risk countries and ill travellers”.

What is not clear from this response is:

  • when did the temperature testing arrangements start? Is it a new development or has it been in place for some time noting many travellers are reporting no such testing?
  • why is it confined to only arrivals from "high risk" countries given the widespread nature of the virus? and
  • why is it in place only at airports? Why not at seaports, given cruise ships appear to be even higher risk carriers of the virus — something the Government has known for over a month?  

Thus a key question is why Australia has not implemented broad-based border screening arrangements with body temperature checking such as those introduced by the Singapore authorities from 24 January and also being used by South Korean authorities?

While it is the case that U.S. authorities claim that in airports where temperature checks have been used they have not been effective at detecting the virus, Singapore and South Korea would appear to be better models to follow in this space.

After SARS, the Commonwealth purchased a number of full-body scanners to check the temperature of all arrivals. These were mothballed in 2010 with a view to re-introducing them when needed.

While that does not appear to have occurred, it is clear from the Prime Minister’s border control announcement from 1 February that he considers taking people’s temperature is a useful means of detecting travellers who may have the virus. Otherwise, why give thermometers to airports — whether used or not used?

A recent European study finds that temperature checks only detect the virus in around 55 per cent of cases. Some may argue that it is not worth spending the money to set up and run temperature checking at the border. Others may argue that detecting even 55 per cent of cases is a worthwhile measure.

The question that arises – and one we may never know the answer to – is how many cases of coronavirus would have been detected and able to be quarantined from spreading the virus, if  Dutton and Pezzullo had introduced temperature checking and associated targeted interviews, at airports and seaports from late January?

Ideally, full coronavirus testing was required for all cruise ships once it became apparent these are strong carriers of the virus over a month ago.

But assuming there are not enough coronavirus test kits to cope with such broad-based testing, would we have detected many of the cases on the Ruby Princess and other recently arrived cruise ships with temperature checking? Would the Government have detected many of the cases arriving from the U.S. through our airports?

Temperature checking to detect the virus is a border function as demonstrated by Commonwealth actions during and after the SARS crisis. Buck passing to state governments is just that — buck passing.

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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