What happened with the Ruby Princess?

The cruise liner, registered in the UK-managed tax-haven of Bermuda, was infamously allowed to disembark its 2,700 passengers at Sydney Harbour on 19 March, despite tests later confirming 440 Covid-19 cases amongst its passengers. This comprises of around 8% of the cases in Australia, at the time of writing. And there’s a good chance this group has kick-started community infection in the country.

With no medical checks or quarantine procedures put in place other than a post factum request for passengers to self-isolate, and passengers subsequently dispersing via domestic flights across the country, it is impossible to know how many current cases are tied to the ship.

The debacle speaks to two of the ongoing themes of the Covid-19 pandemic in Australia. One is the manifest indirection from Scott Morrison and the Federal Government.

With his trademark emphasis on PR, Morrison declared on 15 March that there would be a 30-day ban on the docking of cruise ships in Australia. With the headline announcement taken care of, a general lack of detail followed.

When asked how the policy would be managed, Morrison simply said, “There will be some bespoke arrangements that will be put in place directly under the command of the Australian Border Force.”

A range of seemingly bespoke exceptions to the 30-day ban were then included, one of which was for ships that had already departed international ports for Australia. One of these was the Ruby Princess, then on a round-trip from Sydney to New Zealand from 8 to 19 March.

This brings us to the other major issue: the absence of a vigorous regime of testing and tracing in Australia. When the Ruby Princess returned to Sydney from its previous voyage on the morning of 8 March, there were over 150 passengers logged as experiencing flu-like symptoms.

Some of these later tested positive for coronavirus, and the pathogen evidently stayed on board and went on to infect the new batch of passengers. The 440-odd cases that disembarked in Sydney on 19 March amounted to more than 50 per cent of the country’s confirmed cases at that time.

But because the vessel had just returned from New Zealand, NSW Health deemed it “low risk.”

The overseas passenger terminal at Sydney’s Circular Quay.

Thoughts, lastly, should go to the Ruby Princess’s 1,100 crew, currently stranded on a vessel riddled with a deadly virus and anchored off the coast from Port Botany. Three of its crew were brought ashore on Monday and rushed to hospital.

Experts warn that the ship cannot manage the voyage to its registered home of Bermuda, given the lack of emergency medical facilities on board for the journey. Then again, nor could it realistically berth in Bermuda: 100 other cruise ships are registered in the tiny, flag-of-convenience UK overseas territory.

For the time being, NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller – who has been handed the unappealing job of dealing with the cruise ships after NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard and ABF boss Michael Outram passed the buck – is talking tough.

“They don’t pay taxes in Australia, they don’t park their boats in Australia, their primary flags are often in the Caribbean in different islands,” said Fuller. “Time to go home.”

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