The ship was also raised at a Senate committee hearing into the nation’s pandemic response where Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy said it seems likely a cluster in Tasmania’s north-west was sourced back to the Ruby Princess. Tasmania has 205 coronavirus cases including more than 130 cases in the north-west.
“Tasmania Health have been investigating it and I haven’t seen the final report, but it seems likely healthcare workers picked up the virus, probably, from a Ruby Princess passenger who was being cared for,” Dr Murphy said.
“It just shows once you have someone who is infected who might not know they’re infected, they can spread it to a lot of other people before anyone knows.”
Despite passengers with flu-like and respiratory symptoms aboard, all 2700 guests were allowed to disembark in Sydney on March 19 hours before test results showed coronavirus was present among passengers.
Charles Verwall, who is second in seniority to the ship’s captain, appeared via video link at the NSW special commission of inquiry and said there had been “difficult” signals about the COVID-19 risk for crew.
He said while aware of what was happening worldwide with coronavirus, five passengers had been tested when the ship was in New Zealand and had returned negative results and NSW Health did not conduct a health clearance when the ship arrived in Sydney.
“We were all concerned because, as we know now, at that moment a lot of things were going on in the world, so we were very concerned,” Mr Verwall said.
“But at that moment don’t forget we had the five tests that were negative, and then NSW Health did not come on board to do a health clearance. You think it could be [a greater risk of COVID-19] but on the other, the signals you get … that is not the case. It’s very difficult.”
The hearing, before commissioner Bret Walker SC, heard that following the ship’s previous voyage to New Zealand, which ended in Sydney on March 8, a NSW Health assessment team boarded to examine more than 300 hotel guests with a range of flu-like symptoms, before disembarkation.
The night before the ship returned from its most recent voyage to Sydney, Mr Verwall said he was aware NSW sent an email to the ship saying an “expert panel has assessed the Ruby Princess and will not be boarding the ship to make a health assessment.”
The email also included confirmation that 15 samples from passengers would be kept for later testing.
“We were really surprised we did not have same treatment from NSW Health as we did on the 8th [of March] … because all the other steps taken were the same as before,” he told counsel assisting Richard Beasley SC.
He said he was also surprised passengers were allowed to leave while test results were pending.
The inquiry began on Wednesday in order to hear from crew on the ship before its departure.
But the state opposition, which had repeatedly called for a special commission of inquiry, criticised Premier Gladys Berejiklian for not revealing on Wednesday that public hearings were under way.
NSW Labor’s deputy leader Yasmin Catley said the hearings began in “secret”.
“The Premier failed to disclose that this hearing was going ahead at her morning briefing and we want to know why. They want to chase that ship out of port along with key witnesses and evidence, so they have had to rush this process and they have sought to do so under a veil of secrecy,” Ms Catley said.
But Ms Berejiklian said on Thursday it would have been “improper” for her to have notice of the hearings before the inquiry notified the public on its website late on Tuesday.
Mr Walker also issued a statement, strenuously denying that notice of the start of public hearings had been “hidden” said the inquiry had taken “urgent steps to summons crew that remained on the ship” while it was still docked at Port Kembla.
Lucy Cormack is a crime reporter with The Sydney Morning Herald.
Alexandra Smith is the State Political Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.