Criminal investigation into Ruby Princess debacle under way

Ruby Princess cruise vessel. Credit: HASENPUSCH. DIETMAR

The Carnival Corporation-owned Ruby Princess is the largest source of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) infections in Australia, accounting for one in 10 cases and 14 deaths. A criminal investigation has been launched to establish whether the company or government mishandling was to blame.

According to New South Wales (NSW) Police, 200 of the 1,400 crew on board the vessel reported to have symptoms and 18 testing positive.

NSW Police announced they were launching a criminal investigation into why 2,700 passengers were allowed to freely disembark the ship in Sydney on 19 March 2020. This is despite passengers suffering respiratory illness and some being transport to hospital.

State Police Commissioner Mick Fuller said a full criminal investigation led by the homicide squad would “fully examine the communications, action, and other circumstances that led to the docking and disembarking of the vessel”.

“I’ve examined a number of phone calls between NSW Ambulance, Port Authority of NSW, and NSW Police that stemmed from the initial 17-minute triple-zero call from the ship to NSW Ambulance on 18 March,” the police commissioner said. “The only way I can determine whether our national biosecurity laws or our state laws were broken is through a criminal investigation.”

Investigators will examine the actions of everyone involved – whether from the cruise company or government agencies.

A Carnival Australia spokesperson told SAS on 7 April that the company would willingly participate in the investigation.

“Carnival Australia will vigorously respond to any allegations of which there must now be full disclosure,” he said.  “We are working with Australia Border Force and Aspen Medical to care for crew on board.”

For now, Ruby Princess is moored in Port Kembla under police guard, where it is expected to remain for another week.

The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) held a collective agreement with the company covering the crew on board.

ITF president Paddy Crumlin wrote to the Australian prime minister last week, calling on him to allow the vessel to stay while crew were in need of medical attention to avert a humanitarian crisis.

All other cruise ships have left Australian waters, in what police described as the largest peacetime maritime operation in Sydney’s history.

The Australian Border Force required cruise ships to leave Australian waters before June or face penalties of up to five years in prison or a AUD63,000 (USD39,000) fine.

Celebrity Solstice, which had 12 COVID-19 cases among its passengers, is on its way to Singapore off the Queensland coast alongside Ovation of the Seas, which accounted for 84 cases.

Voyager of the Seas, which had 34 cases as well as five crew testing positive, is en route to Bali.

No passengers remain on board the vessels.

Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) Australasia declined to comment while an investigation was under way.

“In Australia, as in other jurisdictions internationally, cruise lines work under the direction of state and federal government agencies and will continue to do so,” the CLIA spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, passengers from the vessel are preparing to launch a class action against Carnival, said Vicky Antzoulatos, practice leader for class actions at Shine Lawyers, in a statement.