In mid-March this year Princess Cruises’ Ruby Princess docked in Sydney Harbour and its 2,700 guests were allowed to disembark despite what was later found to be a number of COVID-19 cases on board. The incident has led to several official inquiries, the demonisation of the cruise industry and a relentless night-after-night series of negative mainstream media reports about the horrors of cruising. Bruce Piper traces how it all went so wrong.

Last month the NSW Government unveiled the final report from its Special Commission of Inquiry into the incident, finding “serious mistakes” were made by its own Health Department. Although State Premier Gladys Berejiklian has apologised unreservedly to those who contracted coronavirus as a result of the spread from the ship, no such apology has been forthcoming to the cruise sector from anyone involved with the “sorry episode,” as Commissioner Bret Walker described it. And such is the opprobrium around cruising as a result of the various investigations and sensational coverage, almost all of the major cruise companies have recently further deferred their return to local waters, and many in the sector are coming to the grim realisation that a 2020/21 summer season is unlikely — or at the very least will be severely curtailed.

In the early days of this crisis, there appeared to be little doubt in the minds of officials at all levels that cruise operators were to blame for the outbreak. Government was understandably scrambling to deal with a rapidly escalating global crisis, and the identification of the Ruby Princess as a possible infection epicentre perhaps provided a welcome focus for officials to point the media towards in terms of assigning blame. The fact that cruise companies are foreign-owned, despite their longstanding commitment to the Australasian market, also helped feed the paranoia and xenophobia, meaning when the ships were ordered out of local waters the community felt just a little bit safer — and reassured that the Government and the police were doing their job to protect the public.

Unfortunately the infection rates of those who were aboard the ship are unclear, because many passengers who later reported COVID-like symptoms were unable to be tested — particularly a significant number who had returned home to the UK where, at the time, the Government had not implemented widespread testing regimes. However it’s estimated that a third of the passengers on the cruise, or about 800, did contract COVID-19. While the COVID-19 related deaths of 28 Ruby Princess passengers — 20 in Australia and eight in the USA — are absolutely tragic, the massive reaction to the spread of the 2,700 guests across the country and the world after disembarking does seem to be somewhat overblown, particularly since they resulted in a total of just 62 cases of secondary and tertiary transmission. Those 62 people included multiple cases of COVID-19 reported by transport workers assisting passengers at Sydney’s Overseas Passenger Terminal on the morning of 19 March 2020.

The timeline of a tragedy

The report from the Commission of Inquiry details the escalation of the COVID-19 pandemic. After half a year of lockdowns, border closures and other restrictions it’s almost surreal to think that this coronavirus was only formally identified in early January after a spate of unusual infections in China. By 20 January almost 300 confirmed cases had been reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) in China (278 cases), Thailand (2 cases), Japan (1 case) and South Korea (1 case). Five days later Australia confirmed its first case, identified as a man who had flown from Guangdong to Melbourne. In response the Australian Government raised its travel advisory for China’s Wuhan and Hubei Province to “Level 4 — do not travel”. At the time we all still thought it was a far-off problem, and were bemused at the seemingly extreme measures being undertaken in Wuhan to control the spread. How little we knew.

Just a few days later the WHO convened a further update, announcing more than 7,700 cases in China and 83 patients in 18 other countries and declaring the outbreak as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. On 1 February the Smartraveller advisory level was raised to “Do not Travel” for the whole of China, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison imposed a ban on arrivals of anyone who had been in mainland China during the previous 14 days. That same day, the first case of COVID-19 connected with the Diamond Princess, cruising in Japanese waters, was confirmed, leading to the ship being quarantined in Yokohama. Princess Cruises was also the centre of another crisis off the coast of California, where its Grand Princess was on a roundtrip voyage from San Francisco.

Tedros Adhanom, the Director-General of the WHO, sounded further alarms on 11 March 2020 — just over a week before the controversial Ruby Princess disembarkation — after official figures noted that COVID-19 cases had escalated 13-fold over the previous fortnight. By that stage there were more than 118,000 reported infections across 114 countries, with 4,291 deaths recorded. “In the days and weeks ahead, we expect to see the number of cases, the number of deaths, and the number of affected countries climb even higher,” he warned. On 13 March 2020 the newly convened National Cabinet announced the first of ever-stricter measures, including no gatherings of more than 500 people. That was followed on 15 March by a requirement for 14-day self-isolation requirement on all international arrivals, as well as a complete ban on international cruise ships entering local waters. However this ban had exceptions for ships already en route to Australia — including the Ruby Princess which was undertaking a trans-Tasman voyage.

Ruby Princess left Australia on a cruise to New Zealand seven days before Scott Morrison’s 30-day ban on international cruise ships ©Princess Cruises

The Ruby Princess arrived back in Sydney on 19 March after its itinerary was amended in response to the new restrictions, was assessed as being “low risk” by NSW Health, and therefore passengers were allowed to disembark and return home or board onward flights. And then at 9pm that same day Australia’s borders were closed to non-citizens and non-residents. Passengers were initially told their self-isolation period could commence from the final port they had visited in New Zealand, but later this advice was amended to require 14 days of quarantine from disembarkation — but in the final destination meaning they could travel home.

It took four more days for authorities in NSW to further tighten the policy, with Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Health Minister Brad Hazzard ordering that all cruise ships should be held in port with disembarkation denied until all passengers with respiratory issues had been tested for COVID-19. On 23 March NSW Health also confirmed it had been in contact with all Ruby Princess passengers to advise of the 14-day self-isolation requirement. At the same time some very unwell passengers were being treated in hospital, with eight deaths recorded by 25 March.

Amid the maelstrom, perhaps taking the approach of “out of sight is out of mind,” Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt issued his first formal cruising Biosecurity Order on 28 March which banned all international cruise ships from Australian waters until 15 June — an order which has so far been extended until the middle of this month and no clarity at all yet as to when vessels will be permitted to return.

Cruising in the crosshairs

The escalating crisis was the subject of nightly updates on the TV news, with media also ultimately producing several sensational exposs poring over the grisly details. Amid all of this Princess Cruises and its parent company Carnival Australia strenuously tried to mount a defence. On 27 March Princess regional chief Stuart Allison issued a video update confirming that Ruby Princess had been assessed as low risk, and had complied with all official requirements. That was backed up a week or so later in an update on 2 April from Carnival Australia President Sture Myrmell, who insisted that the ship’s crew and shoreside team had “followed to the letter” all of the clearance processes in place at the time.

However their protestations at the time were like a candle in the wind of overwhelming opposition and accusations, with NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller particularly damning. Just two days after the ship docked he described the escalating death toll as “suspicious”. Cruise ships intending to dock in NSW had a “high responsibility” to report any COVID-19 symptoms and alert health authorities about any concerns. “Did they, or did they not, do that?” he asked.

Fuller initiated a criminal investigation into the incident, urging the public to make submissions via the Crime Stoppers hotline. Fuller confirmed that more than 200 people had made reports offering information, adding “that could take two months alone chasing up those leads”. Fortunately there appeared to be plenty of manpower to undertake the probe, with Fuller announcing that a team of no less than 30 detectives from the State Crime, Counter Terrorism and Special Tactics and Marine Area Commands had been seconded to the specially constituted “Strike Force Bast”. They would also be assisted by intelligence analysts and other specialist officers, he promised.

And Berejiklian backed this up with her assurance that if police found no grounds to lay criminal charges she would launch her own inquiry. “I give my absolute commitment to that,” she promised. By this time Ruby Princess had relocated to Port Kembla, with compassion at least shown to the crew on board, some of whom were also showing COVID-19 symptoms, in a turnaround from the initial insistence that she sail off into the sunset as soon as possible despite having illness on board. While the ship was in Port Kembla, officers from the police Strike Force visited the ship to speak to the captain and crew on 9 April — an encounter described as a “raid to seize evidence” by Nine Publishing. Fuller mysteriously noted that “ships have a black box very similar to that of international planes, and that and other evidence has been seized for further investigation”.

Ruby Princess departs from Port Kembla, where she was subject to a police ‘raid’ for evidence in the criminal investigation and was docked until ordered to leave Australian waters ©James D Morgan/Getty Images

After it emerged that police and coronial investigations could take up to a year to finalise, Berejiklian formally established her Commission of Inquiry on 15 April, with Bret Walker SC ordered to report back to the government in three to four months. “We will leave no stone unturned until we find out exactly what happened,” she said. “Discussions with the Police Commissioner and the State Coroner have made clear to me their expected investigation timelines, and I have decided that the quickest path to answers is through a powerful and independent inquiry.”

The scrutiny continued in the following days, including an encounter in the Carnival Australia car park in Sydney where the company’s chief Sture Myrmell was bailed up by journalists from Channel 7 as he arrived at work. Myrmell managed to retain his composure during aggressive questioning on camera as he was pursued to the elevator and was repeatedly asked “Will you apologise to the families of the victims?”

Not with a bang, but a whimper

The Special Commission held a series of public hearings, with Commissioner Walker and his counsel soliciting evidence from the public as well as the cruise company, state and federal officials. Despite assurances of full cooperation from the Prime Minister, the Federal Government launched legal action to stop the Commission being able to compel testimony from some of its witnesses, and the hearings once again provided a nightly opportunity for the cruise industry to be vilified and demonised by tabloid TV journalists. Evidence probed including the timing of ship’s logs, how medical cases on board were reported to official government systems, claims that perhaps the ship’s doctor had been less than forthcoming about COVID-19 symptoms of those on board, a shortage of swabs on the ship, and tearful regret about the procedures undertaken by NSW Health which ultimately assessed the ship as “low risk” and allowed the passengers to disembark.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian (right), listens as NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller (left) updates the NSW public on the latest coronavirus measures and statistics, in Sydney, Friday, April 3, 2020. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

And then one day shy of the four month deadline, Walker handed his 322-page report to the Government, with Berejiklian making it public via Twitter late on a Friday afternoon in August. And lo and behold, as many in the cruise and travel industry had believed right from the start, the whole thing was a monumental waste of time. The overall conclusion was that amid an escalating crisis, where procedures and guidelines were changing on a daily basis, the panel of NSW Health experts which approved the ship’s disembarkation made the wrong decision.

“In light of all the information the Expert Panel had, the decision to assess the risk as ‘low risk’ — meaning, in effect, ‘do nothing’ — is as inexplicable as it is unjustifiable,” the report found. “It was a serious mistake,” Walker noted — but also pointed that perhaps like everyone else involved, sometimes humans do unfortunately make wrong decisions. “Those physicians relied on the best science, not pseudoscience or matters of political convenience,” Walker wrote. “They were diligent and properly organised. There are no ‘systemic’ failures to address. Put simply, despite the best efforts of all, some serious mistakes were made”.

It’s now cold comfort given that we are nearly six months into this crisis with no sign of a resumption of the cruise industry, but the report vindicated all those claims made by Princess and Carnival in the early days. As Myrmell had insisted, the Princess on-board and shoreside teams followed the stipulated procedures to the letter. Princess Cruises Group President Jan Swartz noted that the Commission’s report “confirms that none of our people — the captain, the ship’s doctor, or members of our shore side port agency team — misled public authorities involved in Ruby Princess being permitted to disembark guests on 19 March. This finding is of great importance to us because it goes to the integrity of our people. In our more than 20 years in Australia, we have always sought to cooperate honestly and professionally with officials in accordance with the regulatory environment.”

So where to now? Despite the report’s exhaustive examination of the issues and its final conclusion that has exonerated the cruise industry, Police chief Mick Fuller is persisting with his investigation. “We don’t just look at the recommendations of the special inquiry, but we look at the evidence,” he told Nine Radio after the report was released. “That will help police make a difficult decision, if need be, for anyone that may have shown a higher level of negligence that contributed to the death of those nine people in NSW,” Fuller added. The NSW Coroner is also conducting its normal processes in relation to the deaths and will eventually release a separate report in due course.

However the release of the NSW Special Commissioner’s report should at least pave the way for some progress in relation to a return to cruising. There has been a widespread perception that it was impossible to make any progress until Walker released his findings — and now that they are public, and have found that Princess adhered to the highest standards, surely it will be possible to move forward.

The 17 September deadline for the Government’s existing Biosecurity Order banning cruise ships from Australian waters is fast approaching. Let’s hope that with the conclusions of the report, rational heads prevail in Government and we can look forward to the restart of the cruise industry which supports so many livelihoods in Australia.

As for any sign of an apology to the now-vindicated industry shattered by the incident — from NSW Premier Gladys Berejikilan, Health Minister Brad Hazzard, NSW Health or mainstream media — don’t hold your breath.


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