Eleven cruise ships in limbo on the Australian coast over COVID-19 fears

Ruby Princess, belonging to cruise ship company Princess Cruises. Credit: James D Morgan/Getty Image

Eight cruise ships without passengers but with more than 5,000 crew on board are anchored on Australia’s east coast. The eight vessels are Ruby Princess, Sea Princess, Carnival Spirit, Carnival Splendour, Celebrity Solstice, Ovation of the Seas, Voyager of the Seas, and Radiance of the Seas. Another three ships are anchored off the west coast with passengers still on board.

Cruise ships now account for a disproportionate number of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) infections and deaths in Australia and the government has banned all arrivals.

The fallout from Ruby Princess is still making headlines after state health authorities let 2,700 passengers disembark in Sydney without checks, despite suspected cases of the virus on the vessel. New COVID-19 cases doubled in the state in the following week. Currently, 162 people from Ruby Princess have tested positive, 2 of their former passengers have died this week, and 1 crew member has tested positive. Cruise passengers now account for half of the confirmed COVID-19 cases in South Australia and in one quarter of cases in West Australia.

“There’s gaping holes in biosecurity,” Paul Garrett, Sydney assistant branch secretary for the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), said. “The crew are working people and should be treated with respect. NSW [New South Wales] Health should get their backsides on board and give them some health checks. If they are unwell let’s get them off and treated.”

Meanwhile, the lives of Australian dock workers, baggage handlers, and others had been put at risk, Garrett added, stating that he had written to the port authority in January over the inadequacy of relying on ship’s masters to self-declare any illness on board via the pre-arrival report.

The MUA is calling for mandatory pre-entry inspection of all vessels entering Australian ports, along with vital health and welfare checks for international crew.

A NSW government spokesperson told SAS that the state police commissioner and Australian Border Force were engaged in operational planning on management of shipping in NSW. No one can leave the cruise ships, including Australian citizens, without the permission of the NSW police commissioner.

“Allowances will be made to allow ships to re-provision, and cargo ships can continue to dock, but no one could leave them without the police commissioner’s express permission,” the government spokesperson said.

NSW Port Authority put an alert out that following the government ban on cruise ships “a large number of vessels are looking for a safe berth around Australia”. According to industry sources, the authority has provided anchorage for all eight vessels off Australia’s eastern seaboard, with three vessels off Port Kembla and the others at White Bay Cruise Terminal or on the coast.

Western Australia is less welcoming, calling all cruise ships to leave immediately. However, Artania with infected passengers on board was allowed to dock due to a medical emergency. The passengers, mostly German, will be flown home this weekend.

A second vessel, MSC Magnifica, was refuelling in Fremantle before sailing to Dubai. However, it has been rejected to berth by the Dubai port.

The Bahamas-flagged Vasco da Gama, which operates out of Fremantle, will be allowed to dock, with all its Australian passengers put in quarantine on nearby Rottnest Island. Overseas passengers will be transferred home.

Cruise Lines International Association has been contacted for comment. Its website says it is in consultation with government and health authorities worldwide.

“Despite challenging times, we’re confident our industry has the resilience to overcome this situation in the longer term,” it said. “As always, the health and safety of passengers and crew is the highest priority.”