AUSTRALIAN Border Force Commissioner Michael Outram has denied his organisation is responsible for allowing coronavirus-infected passengers from the Ruby Princess to disembark at Sydney Harbour.

Ruby Princess returned to Sydney Harbour on March 19 having begun a round trip to New Zealand on March 8.

Among those who disembarked, 48 cases of coronavirus have been reported, according to the ABC’s 7.30 and guests on board the ship described minimal health or passport checks.

The Australian newspaper has since published a story reporting NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian had told her party room Border Force officials wrongly advised NSW Health the ship was low risk.

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But in a press conference, Mr Outram said health officials, not Border Force, had judged the ship low risk, and had cleared passengers to disembark, without first going on board the ship.

Commissioner Outram said NSW Health requested the Ruby Princess’ senior doctor provide details of passengers and crew presenting with fever or acute respiratory symptoms.

He said that on 18 March, the senior doctor on Ruby Princess notified NSW Health Department that viral swabs had been collected for “a few cases” of febrile influenza which came back negative for Covid-19.

“New South Wales Health responded to the Ruby Princess and stated, and I quote: ‘the New South Wales Health panel has assessed the Ruby Princess as not – I say not – requiring on-board health assessment in Sydney’,” Commissioner Outram said.

According to Commissioner Outram:

  • NSW Health requested Ruby Princess send 15 samples to the NSW Health lab for testing
  • NSW Health stated to the Ruby Princess “you are free to disembark tomorrow. However, in accordance with the new Australian government guidance all passengers must go into self-isolation for 14 days’”.
  • On 18 March 2020 the agent for the Ruby Princess advised NSW Health that thirteen passengers were isolated with flu-like symptoms and that on the same day the Department of Agriculture informed the agent that NSW Health had done a pre-risk assessment and regarded the vessel as “low risk”.
  • The vessel entered port on 19 March. Six Border Force officers, along with four Department of Agriculture officials boarded and there were no NSW Health officials present as the vessel was considered low-risk.
  • The agent advised ABF officers there were “a number of passengers” isolated in their cabins with flu-like symptoms.
  • The Department of Agriculture officials advised ABF officers that New South Wales Health had done a risk assessment and had rated the risk as “low”, and that health officials would not be attending the vessel. As a result, passengers were given “a green light” to disembark.

In an interview with the ABC’s 7.30 television program, NSW Health manager Dr Vicky Sheppard said Ruby Princess and other ships were assessed as “low risk” but they had now made some changes to their processes.

“We recognised that risk was there and had a pragmatic approach towards trying to assess that risk,” Ms Sheppard told 7.30. “We have now increased requirements for any ship trying to disembark passengers or crew. If any person on the ship has any acute respiratory illness we require a Covid swab and no-one is allowed to disembark until that Covid test comes back negative.”

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