Keeping passengers aboard the Ruby Princess while waiting for COVID-19 test results was a “screamingly obvious” safety precaution, a NSW inquiry into the ill-fated cruise has heard.
But that was not the approach taken by the state’s health authorities in mid-March.
NSW Health communicable disease senior medical officer Sean Tobin was one of several public health experts who gave the ship permission, via email, to disembark at Circular Quay.
The Ruby Princess has since become the source of hundreds of COVID-19 cases around Australia resulting in more than 20 deaths.
A special commission of inquiry on Wednesday heard NSW health authorities considered passengers’ onwards journey home when deciding to allow disembarkation ahead of test results coming back.
Tobin—also the state’s chief human biosecurity officer—was asked by counsel assisting Richard Beasley SC about two potential approaches to dealing with asymptomatic passengers upon docking.
The first approach involved disembarking passengers before test results were known with passengers told to go home and isolate for 14 days.
The second approach involved keeping passengers on the ship in their rooms until COVID-19 test results were known.
“It seems screamingly obvious to me … that you take ‘approach two’ as an obvious safety precaution,” Beasley said.
However, Tobin said the first option “still seems a reasonable approach.”
“[It] allows people who have not reported symptoms, who we believe are well, to travel home,” Tobin told the inquiry.
“We recognise that if COVID-19 is confirmed some of those people may be pre-symptomatic and have been infected and will become cases further on, [but] believe they are actually a very low risk prior to symptoms developing.”
A risk assessment form showed that before docking, Ruby Princess staff raised the possibility of transporting COVID-19 swabs off the ship for testing so the results could be known before disembarkation, the inquiry heard.
Commissioner Bret Walker SC asked whether passengers could have remained on board for an additional nine hours until test results were known.
Tobin admitted it was possible but said authorities had considered passengers’ onward travel including flights home.
“It was our concern for the passengers, primarily,” Tobin said.
NSW Labor has called on Health Minister Brad Hazzard to front the inquiry.
“Brad Hazzard needs to stop hiding behind health officials and front up to the commission to take. responsibility,” opposition health spokesman Ryan Park said in a statement on Wednesday.
The inquiry continues.
By Heather McNab