PM warned about biosecurity risks of returning vessels weeks before Ruby Princess debacle

By Melissa Coade

Thursday August 26, 2021

AAP Image/Dean Lewins

The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) reportedly sent a letter to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the agriculture minister, Bridget McKenzie, last January warning about ‘the current gaps’ that existed in Australia’s biosecurity net six weeks before the COVID-infected Ruby Princess docked in Sydney.

The ABC has obtained evidence of a letter sent to Morrison and McKenzie by the MUA’s Paddy Crumlin, noting that resources must be made immediately available to Australian biosecurity agencies to deal with the encroaching threat of COVID.

“With the global spread of coronavirus widening daily, the MUA urges the Federal Government to implement strict biosecurity controls across Australia’s seaports,” the letter read.

“The agencies that protect our communities from the spread of deadly viruses must be adequately resourced, robust and dynamic to ensure they can respond appropriately to these types of viral threats.”

The inspector-general of biosecurity recently published a report that found that mistakes were made by Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (Agriculture) in its inspection of the Ruby Princess cruise ship. In his report, the inspector-general noted that inadequate preparations were made in early 2020 before the Ruby Princess returned to Australia, and that he found evidence of years of shortcomings at the agency. 

The report said that it was ‘perplexing’ as to why the department of agriculture was not better prepared for the risks posed by the passengers and crew of the Ruby Princess after having witnessed the way COVID-19 spread on board another cruise ship, the Diamond Princess.

“[The Agriculture department] appears to have largely overlooked the need to bolster numbers of experienced frontline staff and management/technical support to ensure that the spike in cruise ship risk could be safely addressed,” the report said 

“Agriculture was not sufficiently alert to the rapidly emerging COVID-19 threat.”

After Australian authorities gave permission for patients on the ship to disembark in Sydney last year, over 600 of those on board tested positive for COVID-19 and 28 passengers died. 

In a statement provided to the ABC, David Littleproud, the minister now responsible for McKenzie’s old portfolio, said the federal budget had set aside $400 million for biosecurity. A portion of that funding – $28.7 million – will go towards upgrading and expanding Australia’s maritime arrival reporting system, Littleproud said, to ‘make our borders and those that work there safer’.

“This was identified as an area of need by the department, state governments and maritime authorities,” the minister said. 

“Recommendations from both the inspector general’s review and the [NSW Bret] Walker inquiry are being addressed as a matter of priority.”

The inspector general made 42 recommendations in his report, including that the department transform its information systems that underpin its human health activities.

“This will strengthen active management and communication of biosecurity risk, enabling effective industry stakeholder participation in human health risk management, pre-border prevention and post-border surveillance activities alongside its plant, animal and environmental biosecurity risk management efforts,” the inspector general said.

The department has agreed fully or in principle with 38 of the recommendations and noted the remaining four.

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