NSW Health was “irresponsible” in allowing Ruby Princess passengers showing COVID-19 symptoms to disembark, according to the commissioner leading a special inquiry into the cruise ship.
The inquiry on Wednesday heard that despite 104 passengers reporting an acute respiratory infection, only 10 people were tested for COVID-19 before the ship docked in Sydney on March 19.
Commissioner Bret Walker said the figure was “enormously deficient”.
NSW Health chief human biosecurity officer Dr Sean Tobin admitted it was “less than what we would expect”. He said he hadn’t seen the logs detailing the daily increases in COVID-19 symptoms from March 15 when the ship docked four days later.
The ill passengers were allowed to leave because it was “possible that some had recovered”, Tobin said, which Walker described as “pure speculation”.
“That’s not a serious public health response, is it? It’s possible they hadn’t recovered, correct?” Walker asked.
Tobin conceded that it was possible NSW Health could not have known who had recovered without testing, but defended accusations that NSW Health had been “irresponsible” in its handling of the docking.
Walker also criticised a report, titled Exhibit 35, detailing the agency’s handling of the cruise ship.
The report said outbreaks of influenza were common on cruise ships and could “often affect a large proportion of those on board”.
“Influenza had been detected among several passengers during the cruise indicating that influenza was the likely cause of respiratory illness on board the ship,” it stated, despite only 24 out of 48 patients having tested positive for the illness.
Walker accused the report of including spin.
“Spin is a form of dishonesty. Half truth perhaps. Weasel words, certainly. But all with a bias to producing a particular intended effect on the reader, regardless of the merits,” he said.
“Something that an impartial public servant would have nothing to do with. Do you agree?”
Tobin said he didn’t believe the report “was meant to conceal shortcomings” or deliberately mislead.
Another reason NSW Health had let passengers leave was because they had flights to catch, the inquiry heard, which the report appeared to justify.
“International experience shows COVID-19 can rapidly spread among passengers if left on board, so self-isolation at home is a much safer option than leaving passengers on board,” it stated.
Walker described the point as “distracting PR”.
The report also claimed that passengers were allowed to disembark “following a low risk assessment”.
A panel of NSW Health officials had made the assessment, the inquiry heard. Tobin said the ship should have been deemed medium risk, stating it couldn’t have been classified as high risk because at the time there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19.
The report stated “the risk assessment process balanced the level of risk against the benefit of removing passengers from a cruise ship on which the virus could be circulating”, which Tobin conceded was inaccurate.
The Ruby Princess has been linked to more than 650 cases of COVID-19, and at least 22 deaths.