A top NSW Health official has told an inquiry the assessment process that deemed the Ruby Princess “low risk” was outdated and should have been scrapped before the ship docked.
- The Ruby Princess became Australia’s largest single source of coronavirus infections
- The ship’s arrival in Sydney is being probed in a special commission of inquiry in NSW
- Hundreds of coronavirus cases and at least 22 deaths have been linked to the cruise liner
As the ship made its way to Circular Quay in mid-March, a team of public health physicians weighed up how much illness was on board and what symptoms passengers had reported.
But more than a week before the vessel arrived, national guidelines for public health units about what constituted a “suspected” COVID-19 case had been updated by the Communicable Diseases Network of Australia (CDNA).
Dr Jeremy McAnulty, the Executive Director of Health Protection at NSW Health, today admitted those guidelines captured any passengers who had been to any country within 14 days, as well as acute respiratory illnesses with or without fever.
Dr McAnulty was giving evidence at a special commission of inquiry into the way the Ruby Princess’s arrival in Sydney was handled.
Several passengers on board the ship were swabbed for COVID-19 but more than 2,000 people were allowed to disembark before their results were returned.
The ship eventually became Australia’s largest single source of coronavirus infections.
“With a change in the CDNA definition of who should be tested for COVID on the 10th of March … the risk assessment process was no longer relevant at this point,” he said.
“Have you just told me in effect that should all have been scrapped and written?” Commissioner Bret Walker SC asked.
“That’s correct, once the CDNA guidelines changed to all countries,” Dr McAnulty replied.
Once the ship had been deemed “low risk” by NSW Health, there was little departmental intervention at the dock.
This was in contrast to the previous voyage by the Ruby Princess, ending on March 8, after which public health officials boarded the ship to assess and test sick passengers.
The inquiry’s terms of reference include both voyages and it has previously heard the “low risk” label was based on an outdated log of illness on board.
Dr McAnulty was also asked about NSW Health guidelines to the public, released on March 12, which encouraged social distancing measures of keeping 1.5 metres between people in public spaces.
This did not happen when thousands of Ruby Princess passengers disembarked on March 19, swarming bus stops, taxi ranks and train stations.
Dr McAnulty said he was unaware of anything the cruise industry had done to ensure social distancing.
“It would have been desirable according to this message to have people social distance when embarking and disembarking the cruise ship,” he said.
The inquiry continues.