Border Force lays Ruby Princess blame with NSW Health

Border Force Commissioner Michael Outram. Picture: Karleen Minney
Border Force Commissioner Michael Outram. Picture: Karleen Minney

Border Force Commissioner Michael Outram has hit back at claims Border Force officials were responsible for letting coronavirus infected passengers off the Ruby Princess cruise ship in Sydney, saying the health assessment was the job of NSW Health.

Mr Outram said health officials, not Border Force, had judged the ship low risk, and had cleared passengers under the Biosecurity Act to disembark. They had not boarded the ship to check.

"What broke down in this case was ... health officers, trained doctors or nurses didn't get on board the vessel, swab passengers and take their swabs for results," he said.

The ship has now been blamed for spreading coronavirus, with passengers in several states, including five in the ACT, testing positive. So far, 133 passengers have reportedly tested positive, and on Tuesday one died.

Among the five new cases diagnosed in Canberra on Wednesday, ACT Health said some were associated with "cruise ships", without specifying which ship.

Mr Outram held a press conference on Wednesday to defend Border Force, after The Australian newspaper reported that NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian had told her party room meeting that Border Force officials had wrongly advised NSW Health the ship was low risk.

Mr Outram said his officers were responsible for ensuring there was no contraband and ensuring everyone had visas. The Department of Agriculture had the biosecurity responsibility, he said.

NSW Health had given the green light for passengers to disembark, he said.

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The Ruby Princess left Sydney on March 8 for a round-trip journey to New Zealand - having arrived earlier that day from a trip to New Zealand, with passengers from that earlier trip having recorded temperatures. On the new journey, it docked in Dunedin, Wellington and Napier before returning to Sydney, the Guardian reported.

On March 17, NSW Health had asked the ship's doctor for travel histories and whether anyone had fever or acute respiratory symptoms, and told the ship that anyone with flu-like illnesses must be isolated and given hand rubs and masks.

On the morning of March 18, the doctor had told NSW Health that there were passengers with flu-like symptoms. The doctor had collected viral swabs for a few cases of fever and those people had been isolated. The ship requested disembarkation for other passengers.

Later that day, NSW Health assessed the Ruby Princess as not requiring on-board health assessment in Sydney, Mr Outram said.

NSW Health had asked the Ruby Princess to send 15 samples to the testing laboratory for COVID-19 testing and told the Ruby Princess "you are free to disembark tomorrow", with all passengers required to go into self-isolation for 14 days.

The Department of Agriculture was told that a risk assessment had been done, the ship had been judged low risk, and NSW Health had decided not to board, so the green light had been given for disembarkation.

Mr Outram said while his officers didn't have the biosecurity responsibility, since the Ruby Princess case he now asked all officers when they boarded ships to "ask the master, has anyone on this vessel got or had flu-like symptoms, in plain English".

"If the answer to that question is yes, we will not let anyone off until we have spoken personally with the Department of Health," he said.

He pointed to a case in Victoria that had been handled "very very well".

More to come

  • For information on COVID-19, please go to the federal Health Department's website.
  • You can also call the Coronavirus Health Information Line on 1800 020 080
  • If you have serious symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, call Triple Zero (000)

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