Test Results Needed Before Ruby Princess Scatter

By AAP
June 29, 2020 Updated: June 29, 2020

A NSW Health executive says she believed more COVID-19 swabs should have been taken and clearer messaging provided before passengers were allowed to disembark the Ruby Princess and scatter across Australia and internationally.

The Special Commission of Inquiry into the Ruby Princess heard from NSW Heath communicable diseases acting director Christine Selvey on Monday. 

Commissioner Bret Walker SC told Selvey he was particularly interested in the decision to let people off the ship without COVID-19 test results having been confirmed.

The doctors on board the Ruby Princess collected 13 swabs suspected for COVID-19 before docking in Sydney on March 19. 

Four of the 13 swabs tested positive to the virus and passengers were sent an email from NSW Health on March 20 notifying them they were now considered close contacts of COVID-19 carriers. 

“What I’m interested in among other things is the extent to which the decision to allow people off the ship before test results were back turns out to have been a very poor one by the NSW public health officials involved, what is your opinion about that?” Walker SC asked. 

“Yes but I believe the decision that was made at the time was based on the experience of the people making those decisions,” Selvey said.

“I think the decision would have been better had they taken into account the change in the case definition that had been made a few days earlier.”

The Communicable Disease Network of Australia had expanded its COVID-19 suspect case definition to include anyone who had travelled from overseas on March 10. 

Walker SC questioned why Selvey seemed “reluctant” to question the “poor decision” made by her colleagues at NSW Health.

“I wasn’t involved in any of the development of the cruise ship policies or procedures. I wasn’t really in a position to make a judgement on all those risk assessments that had led into it and the assessment of the Ruby Princess,” the public health official said. 

“As I believe some of my colleagues have already said, the response is proportionate to the risk.”

Selvey was earlier questioned about discrepancies in information between federal and state correspondence regarding travel after disembarkation from the ship, self isolation timelines and the use of face masks. 

“I agree the messaging should be consistent,” she said. 

When questioned whether NSW Health tried to contact airlines about Ruby Princess passengers travelling onward, Selvey said this was handled by federal authorities rather than on a state-level. 

Later in the inquiry, Selvey told the inquiry she was not aware NSW Health had taken steps to notify the 98 crew members who disembarked on March 19 about the positive COVID-19 results.

She said she was involved in a teleconference on March 20 in which the decision was made to keep about 1000 crew members on board the vessel, including a COVID-19 positive male worker.

“My recollection is that there was a discussion with Carnival Australia representatives that it was their preference to keep all their crew including the crew member who had tested positive on board the ship and to manage the outbreak according to the United States Centre for Disease Control plan for management of COVID-19 on a cruise ship,” Selvey said.

The inquiry continues.

By Ashlea Witoslawski