An eminent Sydney barrister has been granted unlimited powers to investigate the disembarkation of the Ruby Princess cruise ship, which is linked to 19 coronavirus deaths and hundreds of cases across Australia.
The NSW government on Wednesday established a special commission of inquiry into the Ruby Princess debacle, to be led by Bret Walker SC.
The inquiry will report back within four months, with a NSW Police investigation running in parallel to the probe but likely to finish afterwards.
A coronial inquest into the 19 deaths may also be launched by the NSW state coroner, but no decision has yet been made.
Mr Walker - who also oversaw the 2007 special commission of inquiry into Sydney Ferries and recently led Cardinal George Pell's successful criminal appeal to the High Court - will examine the ship's departure and arrival.
He will also look into the role of all relevant NSW and federal agencies in the ship's disembarkation, as well as that of cruise ship operator Carnival Cruises.
The Ruby Princess departed Sydney on March 8 for New Zealand and returned on March 19.
Some 2700 passengers were permitted to disembark the ship without adequate health checks, which federal border authorities blame on NSW Health.
The ACT government on Wednesday confirmed a woman in her 60s who travelled on the Ruby Princess died of coronavirus - the 19th such case nationwide.
Mr Walker will have unlimited powers in the execution of his duty, Premier Gladys Berejiklian said, and would not receive direction from government or bureaucracy.
He would receive all relevant information already garnered by NSW Police.
"He is an eminent barrister, he knows and is aware of the powers he has. It's a matter for him on how he proceeds," Ms Berejiklian told reporters on Wednesday.
"The NSW Police investigation is now focused on matters of a criminal nature ... therefore we have to let the police do what they do."
Police Commissioner Mick Fuller on Wednesday said the ship could leave Australia by Sunday after authorities last week seized its black box and conducted interviews.
He said police had offered to help repatriate some crew members on the Ruby Princess but operator Carnival had been slow to respond.
There are now some 140 crew aboard the ship with confirmed cases of COVID-19, while another 12 crew members have been evacuated to NSW hospitals.
NSW chief health officer Dr Kerry Chant on Wednesday said there were 16 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state, taking the total to 2886.
Some 29 people are being treated in intensive care but there were no new deaths recorded overnight, with the NSW toll remaining at 26.
Authorities meanwhile are ramping up COVID-19 testing as more residents and staff members test positive for the virus at a Sydney aged care facility.
Six staff and four residents linked to the Anglicare's Newmarch House facility in Caddens had by Wednesday tested positive to the coronavirus.
It comes after an employee is said to have worked for six days with mild respiratory symptoms before testing positive for COVID-19.
"This person is absolutely mortified," Dr Chant told reporters.
Testing is this week being ramped up in Sydney's inner west, Penrith, Liverpool, Randwick, Waverley, Woollahra, Blacktown, Westmead, Manning and Lake Macquarie.
Those who test negative in the coming weeks will be able to receive a text message on the same day their result arrives from pathologists.
The NSW government on Wednesday also announced the waiving of up to $50 million worth of business licence fees over the next 12 months.
Australian Associated Press