by ALEC SMART
Over the weekend of 4-5 April, in ‘Operation Nemesis’, which NSW Police described as “the largest peacetime maritime operation in Sydney’s history,” five cruise ships loitering in Sydney Harbour were restocked with fresh food and supplies and, after some crew members transferred vessels, escorted out into the Pacific Ocean.
At the same time, NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller announced a criminal investigation into the Ruby Princess.
Those that departed included the Royal Caribbean-owned Spectrum of the Seas and Radiance of the Seas, both leaving Saturday afternoon, and the Voyager of the Seas and Ovation of the Seas, which left Sunday night.
These were followed by the Celebrity Cruises-owned Celebrity Solstice, which also departed Sunday night.
The notorious Ruby Princess, loitering near Palm Beach at Broken Bay (and now moored in Port Kembla near Wollongong), sailed south and remained in Australian waters off Botany Bay to discharge sick crew members. Crew requiring urgent medical attention were then shuttled ashore in boats crewed by workers clothed in hazmat suits and taken to St George Hospital in southern Sydney.
These latest casualties follow on from the three crew members who were taken ashore to Prince Alfred Hospital in Camperdown on 30 March, two in serious condition and one urgently requiring intensive care.
At least 200 of Ruby Princess‘ 1150 crew tested positive for Covid-19. Up to 800 crew are in strict quarantine in their rooms while around 200 remain on duty to maintain essential operating services.
Three more virus ships overlooked
Despite the focus on Ruby Princess, on 23 March City Hub revealed the little-known fact that three other cruise ships that arrived around the same time – Voyager of the Seas (March 18), Celebrity Solstice (March 18) and Ovation of the Seas (March 20) – also discharged Covid-19 infected passengers, since confirmed by NSW Health officials.
Voyager of the Seas arrived with 34 passengers and five crew subsequently found to be Covid-19 infected; Celebrity Solstice with 12 Covid-19 infected passengers; and Ovation of the Seas with a massive 84 Covid-19 infected passengers.
All of these ships arrived after Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s March 14 announcement that there was a 30-day ‘ban’ on foreign cruise ships docking in Australia, but they were granted exemptions because they were deemed to be of ‘low risk’, having departed Sydney Harbour before the ban came into force.
Like Ruby Princess, disembarking passengers on the three other cruise ships were similarly fast-tracked ashore and went on to contaminate others. These three ships all slipped quietly out of Sydney Heads on 5 April without attracting the same stigma that will no doubt plague Ruby Princess for years to come.
Ruby Princess will perhaps forever be known as the death ship that delivered hundreds of Covid-19 infected passengers to Sydney. 211 of those passengers remained in NSW, the rest dispersed across Australia taking the deadly virus with them.
At least 600 people linked to the cruise ship have now tested positive for Covid-19 – a tenth of all coronavirus cases in Australia – ten of whom have since died.
Despite initial denials, NSW Health has acknowledged it was responsible for disembarking passengers after Australian Border Force bounced back NSW Health’s accusation that they were to blame.
NSW Health has since debated whether responsibility was under the remit of the federal Department of Health or the Immigration Department. The Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton, whose competence and tenability should be under review for the debacle, blamed the crew of the Ruby Princess.
On 5 April, NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller announced a criminal investigation into the Ruby Princess docking debacle, focusing on whether the ship’s operator ignored or evaded responsibility for coronavirus-infected passengers that were disembarked at Sydney’s Circular Quay on 19 March.
Fuller said there were “many unanswered questions” about the cruise. “The only way I can get to the bottom of whether our national biosecurity laws and our state laws were broken is through a criminal investigation.”
Although the NSW Police criminal investigation will focus on Ruby Princess’ owner’s liability for the Covid-19 infected passengers coming ashore, on 3 April, Princess Cruises’ CEO Stuart Allison said that the company had reported all medical cases to Australian government agencies prior to docking.
In a video statement he said, “Our onboard team had taken no chances. They required guests who had reported flu-like symptoms to self-isolate in their cabins. The ship then reported these cases to federal and state authorities as we’re always obliged to do.”
In the lead-up to the weekend operation to evict the five cruise ships anchored in Sydney Harbour, Fuller accused the ships of “lingering” near Australia. “They don’t pay taxes in Australia, they don’t park their boats in Australia … time to go home,” he said on 31 March.
Department of Home Affairs also weighed in, ordering all cruise liners to leave Australian waters before June 15 or the captains would face up to five years in jail or a $63,000 fine.
Despite the fact that ship operators don’t pay taxes in Australia, Cruise Lines International Association, the leading authority on the cruise trade, were quick to remind people that the cruise industry brought in billions of dollars in tourism revenue into Australia every year. They estimated that in 2018-19 cruises contributed $5.2 billion to the Australian economy, the lion’s share of that through NSW, with Sydney Harbour the most popular attraction.
After the initial demand to leave Sydney, Sture Myrmell, President of Carnival Australia, owners of Ruby Princess, revealed the company were in “high level talks” with the Australian Government about repatriating all non-essential crew not required to keep the ship operating – allowing them to fly home.
“Australia has maritime obligations to protect the welfare of seafarers,” Myrmell said, “and as such we need to care for foreign nationals as we would expect other nations to care for Australians in similar circumstances abroad… The ship needs to remain within reach of Australia to access healthcare services if an urgent need arises.”
However, Commissioner Fuller drew the line at allowing the crew to disembark. An estimated 800 of them deemed non-essential to the running of the ship are believed to be in strict isolation on board. “There’s thousands of workers on the ships and we know that cruise ships are prime sources for the coronavirus… If we let thousands of workers onto the shores of NSW we’ll see the hospital beds fill up like they did in Italy…”
NSW Health responded “NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard is signing an order that will mean no one can leave these cruise ships, including Australian citizens, without the permission of the NSW Police Commissioner.”
The name Ruby Princess is now so tainted, it’s a wonder if owner Princess Cruises (part of the Carnival Corporation that also own Cunard and P&O Cruises) will retain it in future, or quietly rename it something that slips in with others in their fleet.
Princess, the British-American cruise line based in California, own 18 cruise ships, eight of which frequently visit Australian ports. In that now-tarnished collection are precious stones – Sapphire, Emerald, Diamond – elite – Royal, Regal, Majestic, Enchanted, Grand, Crown – celestial objects – Star, Sun – and geographic – Pacific, Caribbean – as well as the more prosaic – Sea, Sky, Coral.
On the CleanCruising.com website – a name that seems heavy with irony given the current disparaging of the cruise boat industry as ‘floating petri dishes’ and ‘virus factories’ – Ruby Princess is described optimistically as ready for another voyage.
“Ruby Princess sails from Sydney to Los Angeles and Vancouver in April 2020, a cruise that will be very popular, with five destinations in New Zealand, an overnight stay in French Polynesia, and two stops in Hawaii.”
The NSW Govt announced on 6 April that Ruby Princess will probably be summoned back to Sydney Harbour after the healthy crew that are unnecessary for its functioning complete their isolation and are processed and sent home.
Thereafter Ruby Princess will be deployed as a hospital ship in the likelihood there is a further escalation in Covid-19 cases requiring medical treatment and isolation. In time, the tainted ship may shake off its reputation as the deliverer of death and those responsible are punished for their incompetence..
City Hub’s previous reporting on Ruby Princess and the Covid-19 cruise ships: https://cityhubsydney.com.au/?s=ruby+princess