Garry Kirstenfeldt (pictured left), a passenger on board the Voyager of the Seas, died from coronavirus on Wednesday afternoon
Port authorities were warned of ‘woefully inadequate’ coronavirus screening measures weeks before infected cruise ships were allowed to unload thousands of passengers without health checks at Sydney Harbour.
As COVID-19 swept the country and the world, ships were on March 15 barred from docking at Australian ports – but the Federal Government granted exemptions to four vessels which were already on their way back to Australia.
Those ships – Ruby Princess, Ovation of the Seas, Celebrity Solstice and Voyager of the Seas – arrived in Sydney between March 18 and March 20. All have had cases of coronavirus since docking.
Garry Kirstenfeldt, 68, a passenger on board the Voyager of the Seas, which docked in Sydney on March 18, died on Wednesday.
The Ruby Princess returned to Sydney last Thursday with 1,148 crew and 2,647 passengers on board – all who disembarked the vessel without going through any health screenings or assessments for COVID-19.
Since then, at least 133 passengers have tested positive for coronavirus – which makes the ship Australia’s largest source of infections – and one woman, aged in her 70s, died.
Port officials, cruise ship staff, and the state and federal government have all come under fire for their bungling of the situation, which has been blamed for the spike in coronavirus cases across the country this week.
Emails have emerged revealing authorities had been aware of the lack of biosecurity protocol at NSW ports before the outbreak was declared a pandemic.
The Princess Cruises-operated Ruby Princess ship returned to Sydney on Thursday with 2,647 passengers on board – all were allowed to disembark without
Since then, at least 133 passengers have tested positive for coronavirus and one woman, aged in her 70s, has died of the illness
Rona Dobrin said she and her husband Michael (pictured left) developed a cough a day or two before the ship docked, but had no other symptoms. They got tested after news broke of the other cases. Passenger Greg Butler (pictured right with his partner) is currently in ICU in Tamworth Hospital with coronavirus
An email from the Maritime Union of Australia to PANSW, obtained by The Australian, reveal it had pushed for reforms to address the ‘failure to implement adequate checks for coronavirus infections’ at seaports.
The documents also raised concerns over how ship masters – who are not medically trained – are authorised to ‘self-declare’ any biosecurity risks.
‘Undoubtedly, there is a global concern regarding the potential spread of this deadly virus,’ Maritime Union of Australia assistant secretary Paul Garrett told PANSW chief executive Philip Holliday in an email.
‘Any accurate diagnosis of a virus like the coronavirus is left to medically untrained seafarers as well as ships masters who simply would not be familiar with the symptoms and diagnosis of coronavirus as part of their Medical First Aid on board Ship Certificate. ‘
ABF Commissioner Michael Outram made clear that his officers are responsible for checking passengers’ visas and making sure no contraband enters Australia – not to check passengers’ health
While on the cruise, Mr Butler posted a photo on Facebook saying ‘Drinking Corona in the Crooners bar on a Princess Cruise… watch this space’
Ship masters are known for not reporting sickness among crew on board because staff tend to hide any illness in fear of being sent home and losing out on their jobs, Mr Garrett later told the publication on Wednesday.
There have been multiple confirmed coronavirus outbreaks on cruise ships across the globe, with other Australian cases linked to the recently docked Ovation of the Seas and the Voyager of the Seas.
On Wednesday, Australia confirmed its ninth coronavirus-related death after a 68-year-old man who had travelled on the Voyager of the Seas died of the illness.
The man’s death was reported one day after an elderly woman in her 70s who contracted coronavirus on board the Ruby Princess died in hospital.
Cases linked to the ship have since emerged in Tasmania, WA and the Northern Territory.
Elisa McCafferty, 48, her husband and her parents were among the 2,700 passengers on the Ruby Princess.
She said she only learned about the outbreak on the ship when she got to London’s Heathrow Airport on Sunday.
‘They should not have let us on, and they should not have let us off, and they should not have let us out of the country,’ she told The Australian.
Mr Butler received this letter as he disembarked the ship, but claimed not enough was done to stop sick people being released into the community
New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian told a confidential partyroom meeting the agency should take the blame for further spreading coronavirus around the country
The incident has sparked outrage among Australians who have questioned why they were permitted to disembark, and federal and state officials have clashed over who is to blame.
Operator Princess Cruises last week said everyone who had developed symptoms had been in isolation on board.
Health authorities had classed the Ruby Princess as low risk, given it had sailed from Sydney to New Zealand, and the Border Force issued a notice instructing the 2,700 passengers that they could travel home in the normal manner, but should self-isolate for 14 days.
NSW Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant said most infected passengers hadn’t displayed symptoms until the day they left the ship or later.
She said there was little health authorities could do to prevent the disembarkation of asymptomatic cruise passengers.
Australian Border Force chief Michael Outram on Wednesday insisted his organisation was responsible only for checking for contraband and ensuring orderly migration.
They were two of three ‘green lights’ required before passengers could disembark.
CORONAVIRUS CASES IN AUSTRALIA: 2,431
New South Wales: 1029
Western Australia: 205
South Australia: 197
Australian Capital Territory: 44
Northern Territory: 5
TOTAL CASES: 2,431
The third biosecurity green light was given by federal agricultural authorities and NSW Health, which had decided not to conduct additional checks on the ‘low risk’ vessel.
‘The decision to allow them off in relation to the health and biosecurity issue was one of NSW Health,’ Mr Outram said.
‘I’m not here to apportion blame, we are all in it together in Australia … but the public needs to know the facts. My officers are not trained to take temperatures.’
On Tuesday NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian allegedly said the ABF was responsible for the disaster.
A report in The Australian, citing ‘several state government MPs’, said Ms Berejiklian had told a party-room meeting of Liberals that the Australian Border Force ultimately made the decision to allow the passengers ashore.
‘She said it wasn’t our failing – it was the feds,’ an MP at the meeting was quoted to say by The Australian.
The publication also reported that a a second MP had described Ms Berejiklian’s response as an ‘a**e-covering exercise’.
Because they were given no warning about the potential of having caught the virus on the ship, Mr Butler and Ms Russ caught the light rail from Circular Quay to Central Station, then a train to the Central Coast, before driving to Tamworth
On Monday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was accused of blaming the New South Wales government.
‘The chief health officer of NSW said this was a low risk,’ Mr Morrison said.
Meanwhile, a passenger who walked off the Ruby Princess vessel without any health checks or warnings by authorities is now in intensive care unit after testing positive to the virus.
Greg Butler, 56, and his fiancee Robin Russ travelled for six hours on public transport to their hometown of Tamworth, in northeast NSW, and spent the next four days at home before Mr Butler felt unwell with ‘pins and needles’, a headache and cough.
He took himself to the doctor on Monday and was diagnosed with coronavirus.
Ms Russ said both she and Mr Butler could not believe how easily they were allowed off the ship.
She said if there was even the slightest belief someone on the ship had coronavirus, they should have been locked onboard.
‘We were told we could get off and go home, take public transport or whatever we wanted, it was just ridiculous,’ Ms Russ said.
‘We got into Sydney Harbour at 2am and then took the light rail to central and a train from there.
‘By the next morning the government has got onto us to tell us to self-isolate, so they clearly knew someone had it.
‘We just can’t understand how they let us do that, and now we’re getting the blame for it.’