The NSW health minister says it’s unfortunate 2700 passengers boarded the Ruby Princess cruise ship at a time when the coronavirus pandemic was already front and centre in the community’s consciousness.
The Ruby Princess, which departed Sydney on March 8 for New Zealand and returned on March 19, is responsible for hundreds of COVID-19 cases nationwide and at least 18 deaths, including two in NSW on Monday.
Passengers were permitted to disembark in Sydney without adequate health checks, an action blamed by the Australian Border Force on NSW health authorities.
About 66 Ruby Princess crew members have also come down with the coronavirus, with authorities evacuating an additional 11 to NSW hospitals. The rest of the crew are still quarantined on board the ship, which is docked at Port Kembla.
A coronial investigation into the disembarkation of the passengers is under way.
NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard says the Ruby Princess’ “patient zero” remained unknown, with passenger proximity complicating contact tracing.
He repeated the view of NSW Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant who previously said more infections could have occurred if passengers had not left the ship.
“It is a very unfortunate outcome but at the time that that ship sailed, which was March 8 from memory, there was COVID-19 well and truly,” Mr Hazzard said.
“Journalists were talking about it and I as health minister was working hard on it, and it is unfortunate that people went out cruising at that particular point.”
Mr Hazzard also backed the decision of authorities to release the passengers, saying their expertise should not be called into question.
“There were four very senior public health officials who, on information that was given to them, made a decision … and they had all been making those sorts of decisions for somewhere between 10 and 30 years,” he said.
NSW Health Acting Director Dr Christine Selvey on Monday said both Ruby Princess passengers who died in NSW on Monday had caught the virus on board.
A 74-year-old woman died in John Hunter Hospital and a 79-year-old man died in the Northern Beaches Hospital.