Coronavirus: How did Australia’s Ruby Princess cruise debacle happen?


An empty Ruby Princess cruiseship heading past Sydney Opera House and out of Sydney Harbour on 19 March.

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Thousands of passengers left the ship unaware of a Covid-19 outbreak on board

On Thursday, the Ruby Princess cruise ship docked in Sydney with dozens of undiagnosed coronavirus cases onboard.

Almost 2,700 passengers – some coughing and spluttering – were allowed to leave the ship at Sydney Harbour, catching trains, buses and even overseas flights to get home.

At least 48 people who have tested positive have now been traced to the cruise, making it the biggest single source of infections in Australia.

It’s caused much anger: why was the ship allowed to dock and unload people?

What passengers were told

Passengers who were later confirmed to have the virus have vented their anger over how the situation was handled by ship operator Princess Cruises and Australian authorities.

Some recalled coming into contact with sick people onboard the boat, but said they did not receive warnings.

“I think that they let us down,” said Bill Beerens, a Sydney man who tested positive for the virus in hospital on the day he disembarked.

“I do honestly believe that they [cruise ship management] knew what was going on and they just wanted us off the boat,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Mr Beerens believes he caught the virus from a fellow passenger.

Elderly couple Rona and Michael Doubrin said they had symptoms towards the end of the cruise but had not been concerned, because they had not been told to practice social distancing.

“People were going down to the pool, we were lying in the sun, eating in the dining room, dancing, seeing shows,” Ms Doubrin told Daily Mail Australia.

“We would have isolated ourselves in the cabin if we’d known. We’re not spring chickens – we’re high risk.”

What happened in Sydney?

The ship returned to the city before dawn, cutting short its final New Zealand leg as the nation announced a travel ban.

About a dozen passengers reported feeling unwell on board, and had swabs taken for Covid-19.

Meanwhile, other passengers disembarked at Circular Quay, just across from the Sydney Opera House. The bustling area leads directly into the city centre, with transit links to the airport and outer suburbs.

Five days earlier, Australia began ordering anyone returning from overseas to self-isolate for 14 days – a directive which applied so the cruise passengers. But they were untested and unmonitored when they were left the ship.

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New South Wales health officials have said they followed national guidelines which allow passengers to disembark if the route is considered “low risk”. The Ruby Princess was given that status because it had been to New Zealand only.

One day after the ship docked, the first cases of Covid-19 were confirmed in three people who had been on board – two passengers and a crew member.

It prompted a scramble to track down the thousands of others who had been on board.

Twenty-one of the 48 people had tested positive by Monday had already travelled to other Australian states.

How did this happen?

It is hardly the first cruise ship to see infections – the Diamond Princess, also operated by Princess Cruises, drew global focus in February. Its passengers were quarantined for almost a month off the coast of Japan before being repatriated.

Governments at Australia’s state and federal level have pointed blame at each other. Princess Cruises has said it followed official guidelines.

On Monday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison again described the mistake as the responsibility of state officials.

NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard told reporters on Saturday: “With the benefit of what we now know… I’d have said ‘yeah, maybe we should hold them on the ship.'”

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Passengers disembarking from an earlier Ruby Princess voyage in February in Sydney

But he rejected Canberra’s accusations that state officials had not properly checked cruise ships upon entry.

“New South Wales is actually going over and above what the national guidelines are,” said Mr Hazzard.

State officials stressed they had run assessments “well beyond federal requirements” for 63 ships which have entered the harbour since mid-February.

Others noted that while Canberra had enacted a ban on cruise ships arriving, it had allowed four including the Ruby Princess to be exempt.

Four other cruise ship into Sydney have been linked to confirmed Covid-19 cases. The Ovation of the Seas ship, which docked in Sydney a day before the Ruby Princess, has seen five positive tests.

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Five cases have also been found onboard the Ovation of the Seas ship which docked in Sydney last week

Infected patients are in self-isolation or in hospital. All passengers have been told to quarantine themselves.

In the wake of the Ruby Princess bungle, Western Australia has said it is now considering whether to a cruise ship to dock there. The European ship Magnifica is carrying 1,700 passengers – about 250 of whom are reported to have respiratory illnesses.

A decision was due on later on Monday, after Premier Mark McGowan stressed: “I will not allow what happened in Sydney to happen here.”


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