Why were 2,700 passengers let off a cruise ship in Sydney last month, creating a coronavirus hotbed in Australia? That’s the question high on Australian investigators minds as they launch a criminal investigation into U.S.-owned cruise ship Ruby Princess.
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The Bermuda-registered ship is owned by Miami-based luxury cruise company Carnival Corporation–the world’s largest cruise line operator. It’s been based in Australia since late 2019, where the company has an expanding local operation through its Carnival Cruise Line branch.
The arrival of the giant 18-decker at Sydney’s Circular Quay on March 19, and release of the passengers into the community, caused outrage. Sydney and the state of New South Wales at the time was already Australia’s COVID-19 epicentre, and was hit hard by the fresh injection of corona-cruises.
More than 600 passengers and crew on board the Ruby Princess have since tested positive, making it the single biggest source of coronavirus infections in Australia. Among them there have been 11 deaths–that’s nearly a third of the 36 fatalities in Australia, where cases now number 5,744.
Of those 2,637 are in NSW says the Australian Department of Health. The arrival came just a day before Australia closed its borders to all foreign tourists.
New South Wales police say the investigation will focus on possible breaches of state or national biosecurity laws, when the decision to dock and disembark the ship’s passengers was made. (Some Australian media reports have claimed there were 158 logged instances of the coronavirus onboard.)
NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller says there are “many unanswered questions” about the incident. There are also “discrepancies” regarding the information provided by the ship’s owners, Carnival Australia (part of Carnival Corp.). By law, vessels are only allowed to dock and disembark passengers if the captain assures local authorities their ship is disease-free. The NSW Homicide Squad is leading the inquiry.
There have been lots of questions over the government’s handling of the affair too. Despite the already serious situation in Sydney, state health authorities classed the ship as low risk and the usually iron-fisted Australian Border Force gave the passengers a nod to leave, and self-isolate for 14 days.
Now opposition politicians are accusing the government of trying to make the ship captain and owners a scapegoat for government shortcomings. Among them is Labor Party’s deputy leader in the Australian Senate (Upper House), Kristina Keneally. She has labelled efforts to blame the cruise ship as “dubious”. Federal leaders had pledged to ban cruise ship arrival before the Ruby Princess docked she points out:
Ruby Princess still has 1,040 crew from 50 different countries on board, about a fifth of them exhibiting coronavirus symptoms. On Monday, it docked at Port Kembla–about 100km (62 miles) south of Sydney, while crew members in need of medical treatment are brought ashore.
That’s because cruise ships can no longer dock in Sydney Harbour since the Australia travel ban. Only those dropping anchor for emergencies are exempt.
Now the Ruby Princess will remain at the coastal port for 10 days to refuel and stock up supplies, reports the ABC. “But how the crew will be repatriated, and where the ship will go next, remains unclear.”
Carnival says it will cooperate fully with the probe. “In addition to willingly participating in the investigation, Carnival Australia will vigorously respond to any allegations of which there must now be full disclosure and the basis for them,” a spokesman said in an email statement Monday.
Several other cruise ships suspected of harboring coronavirus outbreaks onboard are still circulating in Australia’s waters. Most are gradually being shown the way home.
While the number of COVID-19 cases in some parts of Australia is reported to be slowing down, NSW is not among them. As health officials encourage doctors to expand testing in hotspot areas of Sydney and beyond, there’s no margin for letting down the guard.