Border Force Commissioner Michael Outram has hit back at claims Border Force officials were responsible for letting coronavirus infected passengers off the Ruby Princess cruise ship in Sydney, saying the health assessment was the job of NSW Health.
Mr Outram said health officials, not Border Force, had judged the ship low risk, and had cleared passengers under the Biosecurity Act to disembark. They had not boarded the ship to check.
"What broke down in this case was ... health officers, trained doctors or nurses didn't get on board the vessel, swab passengers and take their swabs for results," he said.
The ship has now been blamed for spreading coronavirus,with passengers in several states, including at least five in the ACT, testing positive. So far, 133 passengers have tested positive, and on Tuesday one died.
Mr Outram held a press conference on Wednesday to defend Border Force, after The Australian newspaper reported that NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian had told her party room meeting that border force officials had wrongly advised NSW Health that the ship was low risk.
Mr Outram said his officers were responsible for ensuring there was no contraband and ensuring everyone had visas. The Department of Agriculture had the biosecurity responsibility, he said.
The Ruby Princess left Sydney on March 8 for a round-trip journey to New Zealand - having arrived earlier that day from New Zealand, with passengers from that earlier trip having recorded temperatures. On the new journey, it docked in Dunedin, Wellington and Napier, the Guardian reported, before returning to Sydney on March 19.
On March 17, NSW Health had asked the ship's doctor for travel histories and whether anyone had fever or acute respiratory symptoms, and told the ship that anyone with flu-like illnesses must be isolated and given hand rubs and masks.
On the morning of March 18, the ship's doctor had told NSW Health that there were passengers with flu-like symptoms. The doctor had collected viral swabs and tested them for flu - they had tested negative.
Later that day, NSW told the ship, "The NSW Health panel has assessed the Ruby Princess as not requiring on-board health assessment in Sydney", according to Mr Outram.
NSW Health had asked the Ruby Princess to send its 15 samples to the testing laboratory for COVID-19 testing and told the Ruby Princess "you are free to disembark tomorrow", with all passengers required to go into self-isolation for 14 days.
On March 18, the ship's agent told NSW Health that 13 passengers had been isolated with flu-like symptoms. The Department of Agriculture nevertheless told the ship again that it had been assessed as low risk by NSW Health, which had decided not to board the ship and "had also given clearance for all passengers to disembark the vessel", Mr Outram said.
"That red light has just gone green," he said.
On the morning of March 19, six Border Force officers and four Department of Agriculture officials boarded the vessel, with Border Force officers wearing masks and gloves. They had been told by the ship's agent that a number of passengers were isolated in their cabins with flu-like symptoms. But the Department of Agriculture officials "advised my officers that NSW Health had conducted a risk assessment, had rated the risk as low, and that health officials would not be attending the vessel", Mr Outram said.
"As a result of that information, all passengers were given a green light to disembark."
Mr Outram said while his officers didn't have the biosecurity responsibility, since the Ruby Princess he now asked all his officers when they boarded ships to "ask the master, has anyone on this vessel got or had flu-like symptoms, in plain English".
"If the answer to that question is yes, we will not let anyone off until we have spoken personally with the Department of Health," he said.
Mr Outram said "pandemics and cruise ships we'll all agree is a disaster". But he said the cruise ship industry took their responsibilities for obeying the law and looking after passengers seriously. In this case, the ship's doctor had notified NSW Health "of everything that had gone on board that vessel, including of the fact that they got passengers who presented with flu-like symptoms''.
The only cruise ship in international waters on its way to Australia now was the Vasco da Gama which would arrive in Western Australia from near Phuket on Thursday. It had 900 passengers - 800 Australians and 100 New Zealanders. The crew would normally disembark and to their overseas homes, but Mr Outram said given the complications, he was trying to encourage the cruise industry "to take their ships out of Australian water and take their crews back to their home port".
Mr Outram also revealed that the Border Force expected to lose 30 to 40 per cent of its workforce to sickness or staying home to care for children. But it would not be standing any down.
- For information on COVID-19, please go to the federal Health Department's website.
- You can also call the Coronavirus Health Information Line on 1800 020 080
- If you have serious symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, call Triple Zero (000)
We have removed our paywall from our stories about the coronavirus. This is a rapidly changing situation and we want to make sure our readers are as informed as possible. If you would like to support our journalists you can subscribe here.