The Australian Border Force has hit back at claims that one of its senior officers allowed 2700 Ruby Princess passengers to disembark without first testing negative for COVID-19.
The ABC on Thursday reported that the people were allowed to get off the cruise ship because the ABF officer believed they had tested negative for COVID-19, when the negative results were actually just for the common flu. Thirteen of the passengers had been isolated in their cabins with fever.
The officer had “misinterpreted” a doctor’s report on the flu tests. The ABF only realised the mistake the next day, after some of the passengers were diagnosed with COVID-19.
The agency “strongly refutes” the claims.
“The ABF only has legislative responsibilities for the Customs and Migration Act to clear vessels and people travelling from overseas ports. No ABF officer had authority to make biosecurity decisions in relation to the Ruby Princess, including about pratique,” it said in a statement.
“The ABF responsibility does not include preventing the disembarkation of passengers or crew for human health reasons. The ABF’s responsibility is to ensure that no one enters Australia with contraband and all passengers and crew are either Australian citizens or have an appropriate visa.
“Any misinterpretation by ABF officers of test results did not make a difference as to whether passengers were cleared to disembark the Ruby Princess. Human health is not the responsibility of the ABF. The continuous criticism of the ABF’s involvement in this matter at this time is unhelpful and distracting as agencies work together to combat the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia.”
If true, the claims contradict ABF commissioner Michael Outram’s March 25 assertion that NSW Health had authorised the disembarkation of passengers, not the ABF.
“I’ve got no information in front of me, any factual information at all, that says my officers did not acquit their responsibilities under the Customs Act or the Immigration Act,” he said at a press conference.
“Or that they did not consult with officers of the Department of Agriculture, who provided us with information that the NSW Health Department had cleared this vessel for disembarkation.
“The decision to allow them off, in relation to the health and biosecurity issue, was one for NSW Health.”
Last month the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry into the Ruby Princess heard that only 10 people were tested for COVID-19 before the ship docked in Sydney on March 19, and that a NSW Health panel had deemed the ship as “low risk”.
The ABC has reported that on the morning of March 19, a biosecurity officer from the Agriculture department was told by the port agent of Carnival Cruises that some passengers had been tested for influenza, and 11 were in isolation.
Meanwhile, a senior ABF officer — “Officer O” — was told by his supervisor to investigate sick passengers on the Ruby Princess. He arrived at the ship at 6:15am with two other ABF employees.
Officer O told the person responsible for administration of the ship to keep the 11 isolated passengers in their cabins until the other passengers had been processed.
Around 8:30am, the port agent told Officer O that the isolated passengers had tested negative. Officer O requested the information in writing, and was emailed a document from the ship’s doctor. The document was titled “Lab form for coronavirus testing from a cruise ship” and indicated that all 13 passengers had tested negative to the flu.
Officer O “had misinterpreted this document”, believing it showed the passengers had tested negative to COVID-19, according to the federal government’s submission to the Special Commission of Inquiry.
After receiving the document, Officer O quickly informed his supervisor and the ABF Inspector that all of the tests had come back negative.
All of the Ruby Princess passengers had left the ship by about 10am.
The following afternoon, an ABF Inspector and Border Force NSW commander Danielle Yannopoulos discussed the Ruby Princess through several emails. At one point during the correspondence, Yannopoulos questioned the COVID-19 tests that were supposedly conducted on the ship, stating:
“So they all tested Negative…and now some are positive…”
The Inspector eventually said “there was confusion in the test results”, and that the negative results came from flu tests.
Feds say ‘practical’ clearance to disembark was granted
In a submission to the Special Commission of Inquiry, the federal government said:
“At the conclusion of ABF’s customs and immigration checks, someone from the Ruby Princess crew asked whether the vessel had clearance to disembark and [Officer O] responded ‘yes’.”
The port agent told the inquiry that clearance came from the ABF and Agriculture, but the biosecurity officer couldn’t recall being asked for clearance to disembark, nor the ABF being asked for clearance.
In a “voluntary statement” to the commission tabled on July 16, the federal government admitted that clearance to disembark was somewhat informally granted.
“Although pratique appears not to have been formally granted before disembarkation, clearly passengers were permitted to disembark in advance of that occurring and no biosecurity officers sought to prevent passengers from disembarking,” the statement said.
“In that sense, there was a practical granting of pratique to allow passengers to depart.”