COVID-19 cluster detected on livestock ship in Australia

Aerial view of Fremantle Inner Harbour. Credit: Fremantle Ports

A coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak has been confirmed on the Al Kuwait livestock carrier in Fremantle Harbour. Six crew tested positive and have been quarantine in a Perth hotel since the vessel arrived in port on 22 May. A further 27 seafarers were transferred to a hotel today, leaving 15 skeleton crew on board the vessel, the state premier announced at a media conference on 27 May.

Discussions are under way on whether a new crew should be flown in after the ship is cleaned and all remaining crew are quarantined or repatriated.

The outbreak has been subject to controversy. Unlike the Ruby Princess and Artania cruise ships’ COVID-19 outbreaks, where communications between federal government agencies and the state were muddled leading to the disembarkation of passengers who were positive for COVID-19.

A spokesperson for Fremantle Port Authority confirmed the ship was still alongside when contacted by SAS on 27 May. However, the authority declined to comment on the federal government failing to alert the authority that some crew on board had COVID-19 symptoms when the vessel was cleared to dock.

Fremantle port workers may have been exposed to the virus. Police report half a dozen of Fremantle workers had boarded the ship in recent days and are self-isolating. Paddy Crumlin, Maritime Union of Australia national secretary, said the cluster on board pointed to myriad regulatory failures.

“The dreadful co-ordination between state and federal regulatory agencies whether in health, port state control, border control, agriculture, or transport identified with the Ruby Princess debacle again is clearly manifested in this latest incident,” said Crumlin.

Premier Mark McGowan told a media conference that while federal authorities received an email about three ill crew members on board the vessel, it did not mention any concerns of COVID-19 and no request for assistance was made. The email was sent after the ship was granted approval to berth.

“Clearly some errors have been made all round,” said McGowan. “I’m disappointed the email on Friday did not raise a red flag. We have to be more vigilant.”

An investigation is under way as to why the ship was cleared to dock and why the port authority, according to press reports, only found out that the crew on the ship were ill through word of mouth.

The ship was due to load 56,000 sheep for Kuwait in the Middle East.