Ruby Princess investigation finds NSW Health made ‘serious’ errors

Ruby Princess cruise ship. Credit: Kees Heemskerk

State health authorities have been held responsible for infected passengers disembarking in Sydney from Ruby Princess on 19 March and a consequent surge of COVID-19 transmissions in Australia.

This is according to the Special Commission of Inquiry into the Ruby Princess released on 14 August.

In his 400-page report, commissioner Brett Walker noted that the Carnival’s actions “[were] not central to the course of conduct that brought about so many infected people departing relatively unrestrained that unfortunate morning from the ship into the community in New South Wales [NSW], other parts of Australia, and overseas especially in the US. But it’s not sensibly possible to pass over Carnival’s part in this episode”.

Ruby Princess submitted human health reports to Australia’s Maritime Arrival Reporting System on 18 March detailing 128 people on board were ill. Yet the ship advised there were no suspected COVID-19 cases. It also declared that no crew members were showing symptoms of COVID-19 on board, despite several crew reporting feeling unwell.

Walker found the company failed to alert the ship’s senior doctor that, under revised guidelines, upper respiratory and flu-like symptoms fell within the new “suspect case” definition.

The Commission was also critical of “a profitable leisure business like Carnival” for knowingly risking the ship having insufficient swabs on board “to comply with pre-existing requirements”.

According to the inquiry report, the Carnival investigation task force known as “Project Gladiator” could have raised the alarm that “numbers [had] gone berserk” in the days before the vessel arrived, he noted, but it did not.

However, Walker said the raw data showing a “significant spike” was made available to Australian health authorities.

Despite concerns that Ruby Princess might be a ‘suspect of COVID-19 ship’ from the port authority, the Australian Border Force, and NSW Police Marine Area Command, NSW Health still allowed the vessel to berth. It was reported that the vessel was denied entry by the port authority initially.

Ruby Princess docked in Sydney Harbour at 2:30 am on 18 March. Swab tests were conducted and three passengers were taken to a hospital. Despite the circumstances, NSW Health allowed passengers to disembark without waiting for the test results.

“The decision to assess the risk as ‘low risk’ – meaning, in effect, ‘do nothing’ – is as inexplicable as it is unjustifiable. It was a serious mistake,” Walker said.

Notably, Walker acknowledged “substantial claims by the union” over the gravity of crew welfare. This was outside the inquiry terms of reference, he said, but should not be downplayed.

Ruby Princess is owned by Princess Cruises and was under a time charter to Carnival Australia during the incident.

Carnival declined to respond to questions due to ongoing legal proceedings.

In a media statement, however, Princess Cruises’ president, Jan Swartz, said the Commission’s report “confirms that none of our people — the captain, the ship’s doctor, or members of our shoreside port agency team — misled public authorities involved in Ruby Princess being permitted to disembark guests”.