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Four coronavirus cruise ships docked in Sydney

Celebrity Solstice, one of several ships that were allowed to dock in Sydney with coronavirus infected passengers. Photo: Alec Smart

by ALEC SMART

On 19 March the Bangkok Post reported that Sydney Harbour resembled a parking lot for cruise ships as large vessels queued for docking space, like taxis at a cab rank. Anyone crossing Anzac Bridge and looking down to White Bay would have seen two enormous white liners anchored below.

Simultaneously, another three ships were vying for docking space in the main harbour, one anchored at Athol Bay alongside Taronga Zoo, another, the now-infamous Ruby Princess, which contributed to over 660 covid-19 cases (15 of whom have since died), berthed at Circular Quay.

Whilst New Zealand has banned all cruise ships from docking until June 30 in an effort to slow the spread of the covid-19 coronavirus, on 14 March Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced he would only bar foreign cruise ships from docking at Australian ports – for a month.

Australian-flagged vessels were exempted from the ban, as well as four international cruise ships bound for Sydney that were already at sea, having departed their last overseas port (three of those cruises originated in Sydney Harbour). This included the aforementioned Ruby Princess.

NSW Port Authority ordered other non-Australian cruise ships that would otherwise have entered the ports of Newcastle, Port Kembla or Sydney to make “alternate plans urgently… All options to dock the ships are being explored.”

However, according to the Cruise Lines International Association, at the time of Morrison’s announcement, there were 37 cruise ships in waters near Australia, many due back to port.

Australian authorities responded to covid-19 fears by announcing a closure of all airports to incoming foreign travellers, resulting in a suspension of hundreds of flights. Simultaneously, state authorities contemplated closing borders to rail and vehicular traffic to halt the spread of coronavirus.

Ruby Princess
And yet, despite the flight ban, on 19 March, Ruby Princess, operated by Princess Cruises, quietly docked in the heart of the city at the Overseas Passenger Terminal in Circular Quay, and released 2647 passengers. All but 12 were allowed to disperse into the population without tests or quarantine.

NSW Opposition health spokesman Ryan Park was astounded by the lapse in security. “It seems to be unbelievably absurd in the middle of a pandemic that this would be allowed to happen,” he said.

On 21 March it was revealed that Ruby Princess, which left Sydney on March 8, logged 158 cases of varying illnesses aboard during its short cruise around the Pacific to New Zealand and back. The ship’s doctor conducted 13 swab tests for coronavirus and found three passengers and one crew member infected with covid-19. Those affected disembarked to undergo treatment in Sydney upon its return, while the crew member remained in isolation on board the ship.

The rest of the passengers disembarked without coronavirus testing, despite some being exposed to the infected passengers. Two who later tested positive for coronavirus boarded a flight home to Darwin. In the following fortnight, the number of people diagnosed with coronavirus who were on-board the Ruby Princess has accelerated from four to 440. It has now surpassed 660, plus over 200 of the 1148 crew members. NSW Health said 171 of those passengers remained in NSW while the rest travelled interstate.

After the Ruby Princess docking scandal was publicised, NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard told reporters “There were some people on board the cruise ship who presented with flu-like symptoms. One of those passengers was not at all well, and was taken off the ship and has been taken to a hospital here in Sydney, and is being cared for. That particular passenger, now patient, is not particularly well.”

A woman in her 70s then succumbed to coronavirus pneumonia and died; another four fatalities occurred over the following week.

Hazzard confirmed that the dispersed passengers were afterwards notified that they may be virus carriers, and should self-isolate immediately for two weeks, although not all were able to be traced. “It is actually serious, because if we have nearly 2,700 people that were passengers on that ship, we want to know every single one of them is in quarantine,” he said.

In an unusual step, Hazzard asked journalists and the public to help notify those passengers that couldn’t be traced to self-isolate. “I’m asking the media to get that message out to the community. And to the community: If you know somebody who came in yesterday from the Ruby Princess, do our community a very big favour and have a chat and make sure that they are given this clear message…”

The Ruby Princess then departed Sydney Harbour. Of the 1148 crew, 98 left the ship for their home countries. The remaining 1050 remained in isolation on board the ship, which loitered in Australian waters south of Sydney for another week.

At the end of March the captain requested urgent medical attention for three of his crew, and sailed back into Sydney Harbour, mooring in Watsons Bay. The three sick crew members were transferred to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, two seriously ill, the third in critical condition requiring intensive care.

Hazzard defended the NSW Govt’s handling of the contaminated cruise ship debacle. “The Federal Government made an order that required cruising chips to cease cruising for 30 days. That has seen, in the busiest port in Australia, a massive inflow of ships. Since mid-February, we’ve had 63 cruising liners come through the Port of Sydney. New South Wales Health has made sure that every one of those 63 ships — long before the federal guidance and directions — has had a full assessment.”

When Hazzard was challenged that the passengers from Ruby Princess should have been isolated and tested upon disembarking, instead of ushered out into the city in the rush to vacate the dock for other cruise ships, Hazzard conceded a mistake had been made. “If I had my opportunity to have my two bob’s worth, with the benefit of what we now know about those people I’d have said ‘yeah, maybe we should hold them on the ship’”

Four ships infected
Despite the focus on Ruby Princess, three of the other four cruises that were allowed to drop thousands of passengers in Sydney after the March 14 cruise ship ‘ban’ also had coronavirus-infected passengers aboard, since confirmed by NSW Health officials.

These were: Ovation of the Seas (left Sydney March 11, returned March 18); Voyager of the Seas (left Sydney Feb 25, returned March 7, then departed the same day with new passengers, returning March 18); and Celebrity Solstice (left Auckland March 10, arrived in Sydney March 20).

It has now been revealed that Voyager of the Seas had a 66-year-old South Australian man aboard who was sick with covid-19 on the second of its two treks. 34 passengers have since tested positive for the virus. Celebrity Solstice’s covid-19 infected passenger boarded in Auckland before mingling with fellow cruisers. 12 more passengers were later tested positive for the virus.

Another 84 covid-19 cases have since been identified from the Ovation of the Seas cruise ship.

Many countries are now refusing entry to cruise ships. This came about after the infection of 712 people on the Diamond Princess – also owned by Princess Cruises – in February demonstrated how quickly a contagion can spread aboard a multi-storey leisure ship. Canada and Singapore have since banned entry to all cruise ships, dubbed ‘floating petri dishes’, while Thailand and Vietnam only admit vessels after strict assessments.

The Diamond Princess and 3711 passengers and crew were isolated off the coast of Japan for two weeks in a quarantine that was criticised as ineffective, because it turned the vessel into a large ‘incubator’ from which seven people subsequently died.

Many of the sick required hospitalisation. Of the 1,000 passengers that were allowed to disembark after the quarantine period, seven later tested positive to the coronavirus. On 21 March a 70 year old Canadian man became the eighth Diamond Princess fatality as he died from pneumonia brought on by covid-19.

The coronavirus death toll has topped 10,000 worldwide and continues to escalate in Europe. More than 245,000 cases of the coronavirus have been recorded internationally, the figure more than doubled from 1,000 reported at the start of March..

Meanwhile, in Western Australia. Premier Mark McGowan has refused permission for the cruise ship MSC Magnifica to dock after confirmation that of the 1,700 passengers on board, over 250 have reported upper respiratory illnesses.

McGowan justified his reaction in response to the lax security surround the Ruby Princess disembarkation.

“I will not allow what happened in Sydney to happen here. We will not allow passengers or crew to wander the streets. This is a non-negotiable position. Options are currently being developed by the Commonwealth, the Defence Forces and the State Government.”

“I’m advised all passengers are from overseas – Germany, France, Italy. This morning I contacted the Prime Minister and have spoken to the Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton, to explain my priority is to protect West Australians.”

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