This chapter reviews Australia's readiness for a pandemic and the Australian Government's (government) initial response to the virus, including:
the government's initial response in January 2020;
issues related to pandemic planning and preparation;
concerns regarding the National Medical Stockpile (NMS);
the government's border and quarantine measures;
the Ruby Princess outbreak; and
issues related to facilitating the return of Australians stranded overseas.
Initial response in January 2020
Box 2.1: Interim finding
The Australian Government should have responded to COVID-19 with greater urgency in January 2020 and begun preparations for a possible pandemic.
The Department of Health (DoH) became aware of undiagnosed pneumonia in China on 31 December 2019. However, it was not until almost three weeks later on 20 January 2020 that the government activated the National Incident Room, with the department only in 'watching mode' prior to that date.
Dr Brendan Murphy, at the time the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) for the government, advised the Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 (committee) that 'there are quite often small outbreaks of zoonotic infections', and that '[t]here was nothing to suggest at that stage that we were at a high risk of pandemic, but we were watching closely'.
It was on either 19 or 20 January 2020 that the government shifted to 'an active response mode', prompted by 'clear evidence coming from China that there was significant human-to-human transmission, which was game-changing'.
The committee has concerns regarding the quality of information relied upon by the government during this period, in addition to a lack of clarity about which ministers were briefed and when on the unfolding developments in China.
The Australian consulate in Shanghai, which is responsible for the Hubei province and the city of Wuhan, sent only three cables to Canberra regarding the outbreak between 2 and 20 January 2020. These cables referred to publicly available material, and provided limited additional information from private sources such as direct discussions with Chinese authorities or the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The information relied upon by the government in January 2020 does not appear to have extended beyond this information, which we now know had some limitations and may not have presented a full picture of the early stages of the outbreak in China.
It is unclear when key Cabinet ministers were briefed about this 'watching mode'. The committee was told the CMO 'informally briefed' the Minister for Health sometime before 19 January, and that formal briefings to government started on 19 January. However, despite repeated requests from the committee, further details regarding early briefings have not been provided.
Other countries—particularly certain countries in Asia that were affected by previous pathogens—responded to news of undiagnosed pneumonia in Wuhan with more urgency than Australia. Media reports in various Asian publications discussed concerns about the potential for a serious outbreak, and, for example, travellers from Wuhan to Changi airport in Singapore were subject to temperature screening from 3 January. In Taiwan, authorities began monitoring passengers arriving from Wuhan on 31 December 2019.
This suggests Australia could have responded with more urgency to the outbreak in these early days in January.
For example, it is not clear why the government waited for full confirmation of human-to-human transmission before escalating its pandemic plans. There were indications of potential human-to-human transmission before the National Incident Room was activated on 20 January. Notably, the WHO held a press briefing on 14 January 2020 confirming the potential for human
‑human transmission in the 41 confirmed cases of COVID-19.
A cable sent from the Australian consulate in Shanghai to Canberra on 17 January also discussed the possibility of human-to-human transmission of COVID-19.
With better intelligence and more proactive precautionary measures, Australia could have been better prepared to escalate its pandemic response once human-to-human transmission was confirmed.
Pandemic planning and preparation
Box 2.2: Interim finding
Pandemic planning pre-COVID-19 was not adequate.
Australia's planning for a pandemic had assumed an influenza-type virus. This left us unprepared when that wasn't the case.
The Australian Government's initial COVID-19 response plan adopted in February contained key gaps, including failures to contemplate the closure of international borders, and the neglect of the aged care and disability sectors.
Pandemic planning prior to COVID-19
Before the emergence of COVID-19, the government had a series of plans in place to address disasters, including the Australian Health Management Plan for Pandemic Influenza (updated in August 2019).
However, the committee received evidence suggesting Australia's pandemic planning prior to COVID-19 had some deficiencies.
Dr Raina MacIntyre, who has been involved in pandemic planning for over 20 years in Australia, suggested that since the 2009 pandemic 'some things have changed in the way we think about broad expertise', and that in the early months of the pandemic 'we had very narrow expertise driving the agenda'.
Appearing in a private capacity, Mr William Bowtell AO, an architect of Australia's public policy response to the AIDS pandemic, questioned how the government allowed itself to be 'caught seemingly unaware' and suggested the effectiveness of preventative pandemic planning 'has not been good'.
Dr Norman Swan testified before the committee that:
This virus has behaved the way viruses and infections have behaved for centuries...[O]ne knows that the virus always wins, that this was coming, that it was serious and that the modellers, not necessarily Australian modellers but overseas modellers, were showing very early that the only thing that works to control it, and they've modelled all the variables—testing, isolation, quarantine—is social distancing when you've not got a vaccine and you've not got a treatment. We were behaving as though it was influenza. Our pandemic planning was around influenza.
It is also not clear that the government conducted adequate preparatory pandemic exercises. Some media reporting indicates that Australia has not run a large-scale pandemic simulation exercise since 2008.
Dr Murphy rejected the suggestion that the last pandemic planning drill occurred over a decade ago as 'completely untrue', citing an exercise in
May 2019 on a pandemic in a cruise ship coming into Sydney.
However, the Ruby Princess cruise ship outbreak raises serious questions about the efficacy of the pandemic planning drill referred to by Dr Murphy. The fact that infected passengers disembarked a cruise ship without public health measures being enforced and subsequently became the major source of community transmission implies that this exercise was either inadequate or not used to inform the real-life response when the pandemic occurred.
The government's initial COVID-19 plan
In February, the government developed the Australian Health Sector Emergency Response Plan for Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19 Plan).
However, there were clear gaps in this plan. For example, it did not contemplate closure of international borders, as highlighted in a submission from the Grattan Institute.
The government stated in its COVID-19 Plan that it would be responsible for aged care. However, the government failed to develop a COVID-19 plan specifically for the aged care sector. In its special report, Aged care and COVID-19, the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety found that measures implemented by the government 'were in some respects insufficient to ensure preparedness of the aged care sector'.
The government also neglected the needs of people with disability in its initial planning and response. In a report released in November 2020, the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability found that in the early phase of the pandemic, the government made no effort to properly consult the sector and neglected to develop policies addressing the needs of people with disability. The Commission also heard evidence that the COVID-19 Plan did not mention people living with disability.
According to the Commissioners, this failure to prepare the disability sector for COVID-19 'produced serious adverse consequences for many people with disability'. These included personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages, a 'sudden loss of essential support services', prolonged periods without access to food and medication, and 'significant distress' from a lack of clear and consistent information from government. In disability accommodation settings, people were exposed to a greater risk of infection than other Australians and many suffered threats to their mental health – believing they had been forgotten and ignored.
The government also failed to put in place appropriate disaster planning in 2020 to prepare for the mental health impact of the pandemic, according to the Black Dog Institute's evidence to the committee. Mental health support packages lagged behind other government assistance programs.
National Medical Stockpile
Box 2.3: Interim finding
The Australian Government failed to act on warnings regarding the inadequacy of its National Medical Stockpile prior to the bushfires and the pandemic.
The NMS is 'a highly strategic reserve of drugs, vaccines, antivirals and PPE for use in the national response to a public health emergency'.
The onset of the pandemic 'prompted the government to significantly increase the range and quantity' of its PPE holdings. The stockpile was expanded to include gowns, gloves and goggles, as well as other items such as hand sanitiser and ventilators. The stockpile of masks also increased substantially, at a total cost of $3.2 billion.
The need to rapidly increase the quantity and type of items held in the stockpile implies that it may not have been appropriately stocked. Indeed, Dr Murphy told the committee that there were certain scenarios for which Australia would not have had enough PPE.
Health expert Dr MacIntyre gave warnings before the COVID-19 pandemic hit that 'the stockpiling has failed to have anywhere near the required masks and respirators for health workers'. She added:
A year ago I presented research we'd done to the chair of the [Communicable Diseases Network Australia] which showed that, if there were a serious epidemic in Sydney that lasted six months, we'd need 30 million respirators for Sydney alone. This wasn't heeded clearly, and then we had the bushfires. So we were in a bad situation with the stockpiling of the masks. We can't make that mistake again.
The DoH acknowledged there have been some concerns about PPE supplies, including of masks, and gowns. It also told the committee that of the 2865 requests made by aged care service providers to access PPE from the NMS between March and mid-August, only 1324 were approved.
Peak bodies raised serious concerns directly with the committee about the availability or distribution of PPE. The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners said its members reported being encouraged or compelled to unsafely reuse PPE, needing to privately source PPE at 'excessive' retail prices, and 'resorting to homemade equipment due to shortages'.
The government should have acted on warnings received prior to the pandemic about the inadequacy of strategic stores in the NMS. Instead, crisis purchasing and large outlays of public funds were spent trying to locate and secure adequate supplies for the stockpile.
Closing Australia's international borders
Box 2.4: Interim finding
The Australian Government should have acted earlier and with more consistency on decisions to extend travel restrictions and impose strict quarantine measures on international arrivals.
It is unclear which level of government was responsible for compliance with home quarantine arrangements for returning travellers between 1 February and 28 March—when compulsory hotel quarantine arrangements were mandated. There were no compliance checks taken throughout this time.
Extension of travel restrictions
On 1 February 2020, the government banned foreign nationals in mainland China from entering Australia. Further travel bans were not implemented until a month later and applied to foreign nationals travelling from Iran (1 March), the Republic of Korea (5 March) and Italy (11 March).
The government did not extend these travel bans to any other countries until 20 March, when it finally closed Australia's borders to all non-citizens and non-residents. In the period from 1 February to 20 March, Australia's number of reported cases of COVID-19 grew from 12 to 872.
The committee heard testimony from Mr Bowtell that following the travel ban placed on China, 'there ought to have been a similar ban, or very strong restrictions, put on travel for people coming in from the United Kingdom, Europe and the United States'.
On 13 March—one week prior to Australia extending restrictions to travellers from all countries—there were 1264 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the US, 594 in the UK, and over 13 000 in Europe (excluding Italy), including 2965 in Spain. By the time travel restrictions were extended on 20 March, the number of cases had risen to over 60 000 in Europe (excluding Italy), 10 442 in the United States and 3277 in the United Kingdom.
It is unclear why it wasn't until 18 March that the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) stated that 'the risk for importation from the USA and Europe (including the UK) was now considered high, as is potentially the risk from other countries where ascertainment may be poor'.
By that point, the AHPPC had become ambivalent about the need for travel restrictions as long as universal quarantine continued, citing low levels of international travel by foreign nationals and recommending that travel restrictions be either lifted completely or applied equally to all countries'.
It is also unclear exactly when the government first became aware of an elevated risk associated with travellers returning from the USA and Europe. It is equally unclear when the government became aware of risks from some countries with limited ability to ascertain transmission levels. This lack of clarity can be attributed to the government's refusal to prove the committee with access to key documents such as AHPPC minutes which would provide that information.
Given how important the initial border closures have turned out to be, the government should not have waited so long to extend them to other countries where the risk was high or unknown.
Dr MacIntyre described border controls as 'the single most important measure', while Dr Murphy told the committee on 23 April that of the decisions made by government, 'the most important early decisions were related to border measures'. This is in conflict with the ambivalent advice released by the AHPPC on 18 March.
There are also important questions over why Australia did not engage in other risk mitigation measures at international airports. Mr Bowtell told the committee in a hearing on 25 June that in his view:
…over February there ought to have been a much higher degree of border surveillance, temperature checking and assessment at our international airports. That was done in Singapore, Hong Kong and other hub airports on the way to Australia.
In light of the importance of border measures and Dr Murphy's evidence on 23 April that 'two-thirds of cases in Australia are reported as being overseas acquired', the government should have acted prior to 20 March to extend travel restrictions beyond China, Iran, South Korea and Italy.
Self-isolation and quarantine requirements
From 1 February, returning travellers from China were required to self-isolate at home for 14 days. The same mandatory self-isolation requirement was implemented when restrictions on travellers from Iran, South Korea and Italy came into effect. However, it was not until 16 March that the government announced all overseas travellers would be required to self-isolate for 14 days on arrival.
At no stage were compliance checks undertaken to ensure these requirements were being adhered to, nor is it clear which level of government would have been responsible for monitoring these arrangements.
The lack of home quarantining arrangements for most international arrivals between 1 February and 16 March is directly at odds with the arrangements put in place one month earlier for Australians stranded in Wuhan and Hubei, for whom the government had organised flights and mandatory quarantine.
Further, mandatory hotel quarantine requirements were not introduced until 28 March—10 days after the AHPPC's advice of 'the imposition of universal quarantine'. In that 10 day period, new daily case numbers grew from 122 to 464 and another seven Australians died of COVID-19.
Given the government recognised the importance of quarantine arrangements as early as 1 February, it should not have waited until 16 March to require that international travellers self-isolate and until 28 March to mandate hotel quarantine.
Additionally, clear lines of responsibility for quarantining arrangements and compliance arrangements should have been agreed upon and enforced when those decisions were initially taken.
Australians stranded overseas
Box 2.5: Interim finding
As at 24 November, there were 36 875 Australians registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as being stranded overseas as wishing to come home to Australia.
The Australian Government should have been putting in place plans for Australians stranded overseas to return home after international borders were closed in March.
The Australian Government knew of the escalating crisis for Australians overseas and did not adequately prepare or plan for their safe return.
There remains a number of options that the Australian Government could utilise—including expanding commonwealth-funded quarantine facilities, chartering flights or using the Royal Australian Air Force fleet—to assist stranded Australians in getting home.
Tens of thousands of Australian citizens and residents have been stranded overseas as a consequence of countries around the world closing their borders, the limited availability of international flights, and caps placed on the number of international arrivals by the government in July.
On 20 August, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) advised that there were approximately '27 000 people registered with DFAT at [their] posts overseas [including] 18 800 who have expressed a wish to return to Australia'. Of the 18 800 people wishing to return to Australia, approximately 15 per cent were considered 'vulnerable' based on their health condition, location or limited finances.
It wasn't until 10 July that the National Cabinet capped the number of international arrivals at approximately 4000 arrivals per week. On 7 August, the Prime Minister announced an extension on that cap until 24 October.
Following sustained public pressure from the community and extensive media coverage on the plight of Australians stranded overseas, the government announced on 18 September an increase in the cap from 4000 passengers per week to 4900 by 27 September and 5500 by 11 October. The Prime Minster stated:
I would hope that those who are looking to come home, that we'd be able to do that within months and I would hope that we can get as many people home, if not all of them by Christmas.
On 26 November 2020 DFAT additionally told the committee that the weekly cap was '5625 arrivals, rising to 6745 arrivals with the resumption of arrivals into Melbourne on 7 December'.
The large number of Australians stranded overseas is directly linked to the restrictions on international arrivals into Australia. In a hearing on 24 September, DFAT told the committee that '[t]he introduction of the caps has posed a significant challenge for those Australians overseas'.
Following a meeting of the National Cabinet on 13 November, the Prime Minister announced the government will be extending the international air passenger caps until 31 January 2021 and that 'since 18 September 2020 the list of registered Australians has grown from 26 200 to 35 637'. Additionally, on 26 November 2020, DFAT told the committee that 'as at 24 November there were 36 875 Australians overseas registered with DFAT as seeking to return,' including 8 070 who were classed as being 'vulnerable'.
The number of Australians stranded overseas wishing to return home has grown incrementally since the introduction of the international arrival cap—and continues to grow. These numbers include:
On these growing numbers, it is clear the Prime Minister's promise to get as many, if not all of these stranded Australians home by Christmas is no longer possible. Even if these numbers stopped growing, with continued weekly flight caps of around 5500 the backlog of stranded Australians is simply too large.
Despite the government's clear constitutional responsibilities for incoming arrivals and quarantine, the government has been reluctant to accept full responsibility for the plight of Australians wanting to return home, with the Prime Minister explaining the passenger cap policy as a decision of National Cabinet intended to ease pressure on the states over a stretched hotel quarantine system.
The Secretary of the Department of Home Affairs told the committee on 24 September that there are no legal barriers preventing the government from providing federal quarantine arrangements. He also stated there was a standing offer to increase quarantine capacity and that the government would provide states and territories 'whatever they need' to do so.
The Prime Minister has not provided any explanation of why the government did not put in place the resources and planning needed to assist Australians to return home as borders closed in March instead of choosing to shift responsibility back onto stranded Australians themselves.
When questioned in July about the proposal to restrict people entering Australia, the Prime Minister stated, 'there's been many opportunities for people to return. If they're choosing to do so now, they have obviously delayed that decision for a period'.
The Prime Minister's attempts to shift responsibility back on individuals is emblematic of the personal experiences described to the committee. Appearing in a private capacity, Mrs Claire Burles gave evidence that:
The only advice we have received from Home Affairs
[Department of Home Affairs] or Smartraveller is that we had not attempted to come home soon enough and that there is no assistance available for citizens in our situation. In my most recent conversation with the Australian consulate the only resources they provided me with were the locations of homeless shelters.
The shocking accounts from Mrs Burles and other witnesses of being directed to homeless shelters or told to take out loans was confirmed by DFAT's evidence to the committee on 24 September that 'where they have nowhere to live we provide them a list of homeless shelters, or we are able to provide loans as well to enable them to sustain themselves while we work to get them on flights'.
Mrs Deanne Vowels explained to the committee that she had been told by Australian consular officials that:
There's nothing we can do. We get hundreds of calls a day just like yours, so we can't do anything about yours. Have you set up a GoFundMe page? Ask your friends and family for help.
These accounts—confirmed by the department responsible—demonstrate that the government's efforts to support Australians overseas during COVID-19 have been woefully inadequate.
In the same hearing, the Chair asked the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet why the government could not open its own quarantine facilities, as it had done so previously. The department suggested this was a result of the government's limited public health capacity, but admitted it had not taken any steps to test the market for privately contracted health workers, nor was it aware of any requests to repurpose government property as a quarantine facility.
On 15 October, the government announced it would use the Howard Springs quarantine facility in the Northern Territory to facilitate the return of Australians stranded overseas.
This demonstrates that the government had the capacity to provide quarantine arrangements and should not have sought to characterise the cap on international arrivals as a function of state and territory capacity constraints.
By the time it announced the increase in the cap and the use of Howard Springs for quarantine capacity, it had been more than seven months since the government first assisted Australians in China to return home, and approximately six months since Australia closed its international borders.
The increased cap on international arrivals and the opening up of the Howard Springs facility, whilst welcome, was long overdue. More should have been done sooner and continued attention from the government is required to ensure Australians can return home at the earliest opportunity, given the significant delays already endured by thousands of people including many vulnerable individuals.
Containment measures for cruise ships
Box 2.6: Interim finding
The Ruby Princess outbreak occurred following the Prime Minister announcing that arriving cruise ships would be 'directly under the command of the Australian Border Force' with 'bespoke arrangements' in place.
The Australian Government did not follow its legislated responsibilities on human quarantine.
The Australian Government did not follow its legislated responsibilities on human biosecurity, with officials from the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment failing to administer Traveller with Illness Checklists and follow other key protocols designed to identify and manage active cases of COVID-19.
The Australian Government is still unable to identify which Australian Government official granted pratique for passengers to disembark the
Ruby Princess on 19 March 2020.
On 15 March, the government announced a ban on all cruise ships from foreign ports entering Australian ports. This was due to the well-documented risk presented by cruise ships following outbreaks across the world, including on the Diamond Princess in Japan.
In announcing the ban, the Prime Minister said there 'will be some bespoke arrangements that we put in place directly under the command of the Australian Border Force' to ensure that the relevant protections are put in place. The relevant Determination—made on 18 March by
the Hon Greg Hunt, Minister for Health—included an exemption allowing cruise ships which had departed for Australia by a certain date to enter port.
Three days after the announcement, a cruise ship—the Ruby Princess—docked in Sydney and passengers disembarked the ship on the same day. The Ruby Princess had been allowed to dock under an exemption in the Determination of 18 March, as it had departed New Zealand before the time and date in the Determination. On 23 April, it was reported that approximately 10 per cent of all cases in Australia had been linked to the Ruby Princess.
On 15 April, the New South Wales (NSW) Government established the Special Commission of Inquiry into the Ruby Princess, which handed down its final report on 14 August. The Special Commission of Inquiry found that:
of 1682 passengers from Australia, 663 (39.4 per cent) contracted COVID-19;
of the 1148 crew, 191 (16.6 per cent) contracted COVID-19; and
28 people associated with the Ruby Princess have died.
The Special Commission of Inquiry noted that '[t]he human consequences of the scattering upon disembarkation have not yet played out'. It also noted that the original source of the then 114 reported cases from the COVID-19 outbreak at North West Regional Hospital in Tasmania was most likely to be one, or both, of two inpatients admitted to the hospital with COVID-19 acquired on the Ruby Princess.
The question of which jurisdiction and department was responsible for allowing passengers to disembark the Ruby Princess and for subsequent quarantine measures remains unresolved despite repeated requests by the committee for this question to be answered by relevant Australian Government agencies including the Australian Border Force (ABF) and the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (DAWE).
Government departments explained to the committee their role in relation to cruise ships arriving in Australia:
DAWE advised that it is responsible for detecting items and goods that could pose a risk to Australia's animal, plant or environmental biosecurity;
the Australian Government's CMO is responsible for human biosecurity; and
ABF advised that it is responsible for the customs and immigration process.
In relation to cruise ship and vessel clearances, Mr Andrew Metcalfe AO, Secretary of DAWE, advised that 'pratique' (the legal authorisation to allow passengers to disembark a vessel) is granted by a biosecurity officer from DAWE.
Prior to the Ruby Princess docking, DAWE was provided with four human health updates between 16 March to 18 March which clearly indicated that the number of passengers who had become ill, or showed signs of illness, had significantly increased—from 53 on 16 March to 128 on 18 March. This surge in ill passengers alone should have provided DAWE with reason to pause and consider raising the matter with NSW Health or the government CMO.
Despite a dedicated inquiry investigating the circumstances related to the
Ruby Princess and direct questions from the committee, it remains unclear precisely when and who granted pratique. Passengers commenced disembarking the ship at 6.30 am on 19 March 2020, but the document advising the vessel operator that pratique had been granted was lodged at 7.39 am. Furthermore, evidence suggests that an ABF officer had also boarded the ship and a crew member of the Ruby Princess had asked this officer whether the vessel had clearance to disembark, to which the ABF officer responded 'yes'.
The committee accepts that NSW Health had provided a preliminary health approval for passengers to disembark. This approval was primarily based off a desktop review of documents provided by the Ruby Princess through DAWE's Maritime Arrival Reporting System. However, while NSW Health failed to recognise active cases of COVID-19 onboard the Ruby Princess, NSW Health was not onboard on the morning of 19 March and could not have played a role in the decision to let the Ruby Princess passengers disembark. Australian Government agencies were onboard the ship, and federal protocols and procedures to identify potential human health risks onboard cruise ships at the time of arrival into Australia, and to confirm the assessments made by NSW Health were carried out.
Key to these protocols was the administration of Traveller with Illness Checklists (TICs). TICs were designed by the DoH for use by DAWE biosecurity officers at air and seaports in Australia. TICs are administered to ill passengers arriving in Australia in order to identify active cases of, or potential exposure to, a variety of listed human diseases. Negative indications from the checklist—including the presence of symptoms such as fever and coughing—would require a biosecurity officer to then liaise with local health officials to provide further advice on treatment or quarantine for the relevant passenger.
Beyond the administration of TICs, DAWE biosecurity officers are also required to interview officials onboard arriving cruise ships in order to ascertain the health situation at the time of arrival, and also verify the medical records that form the basis of NSW Health's pre-arrival assessment. In totality, these protocols form an important fail-safe in the management of human biosecurity risks at our borders by verifying the health status of passengers prior to the granting of pratique and the disembarking of passengers.
This is particularly relevant in the case of the Ruby Princess, where the rapidly deteriorating health situation onboard the vessel was obscured from NSW Health officials due to delays in updating medical records and passenger logs. Evidence before the Special Commission of Inquiry demonstrates that there had been a surge in ill patients onboard the vessel in the period after NSW Health had made their assessment and before government officials boarded the ship in the early hours of 19 March.
Secretary Metcalfe has subsequently admitted that DAWE biosecurity officers at the Port of Sydney failed to follow any of the aforementioned procedures on the morning of the arrival of the Ruby Princess. Further, evidence before this committee suggests that it had in fact been the practice of officials at the harbor for some period of time to ignore these protocols in the interest of saving time.
As such, an important aspect of the government's policy and procedure surrounding human biosecurity was ignored by officials during the nascent stages of a global pandemic, despite the clear risk posed by passengers returning on cruise ships.
The actions of Secretary Metcalfe's officials meant that passengers were allowed to disembark the Ruby Princess without a) the relevant health documentation being verified by officials, b) the ship's captain and medical staff being interviewed to ascertain the health situation onboard the ship at the time of arrival, and c) ill patients being triaged by administration of the TICs. Secretary Metcalfe's claim that his officials relied on the health assessment made by NSW Health is troubling, given the fact that his officials had not made contact to confirm NSW Health's findings until after passengers had commenced disembarking the vessel.
If officials onboard the Ruby Princess had been interviewed—per protocol—or if current health records had been examined—per protocol—it is highly likely that the significant increase in illness onboard the vessel would have been identified, and the appropriate safeguards regarding treatment and quarantine put in place. The revelations of the government's laissez faire approach to its own policy leaves open the possibility of fundamental flaws in the application of biosecurity procedures at every port in Australia. This in turn poses a threat to the health of our community, the sustainability of our native flora and fauna, and the livelihoods of many in the agricultural industry, which would be crippled by the entry of disease into our ecosystem.
Further, the government has thus far failed to identify who provided pratique to the Ruby Princess under the Biosecurity Act 2015 (Cth). The granting of pratique is an important aspect of biosecurity management at our seaports and airports, providing the legal approval for a vessel to disembark passengers and goods. This clearance should only be granted upon the completion of the required protocols and procedures around biosecurity and human biosecurity and can only be granted by officers authorised under the Biosecurity Act 2015.
Evidence before the committee indicates that passengers were allowed to disembark prior to the granting of pratique, and that permission to disembark was first given by an ABF official, despite them not holding the authority to do so. Further, per previous comments, pratique was granted without appropriate protocol having been followed with respect to human biosecurity, and ostensibly before direct contact had been made with NSW Health to confirm their assessment.
Despite the best efforts of the committee, the government has been unable—or unwilling—to explain who granted pratique, and on what basis.
It is the opinion of the committee that the failure of DAWE and ABF officials to follow government protocol and procedure in relation to the arrival of the
Ruby Princess directly led to the further spread of COVID-19 in the Australian community. It is further the committee's opinion that steps must be taken to strengthen Australia's border security arrangements insofar as they relate to the responsibility of human biosecurity to ensure that instances such as this are not repeated.
It is also concerning that passengers were allowed to independently make their way home to self-isolate. The likelihood of COVID-19 spreading rapidly amongst passengers and crew on cruise ships was not a new scenario. The Diamond Princess, a cruise ship quarantined at a port in Japan, had its first case of COVID-19 detected on the ship on 1 February. By 20 February, the confirmed cases had increased to 634 passengers. The circumstances relating to the Diamond Princess provided clear lessons that should have been implemented prior to the disastrous outcomes as a result of the Ruby Princess.
Additionally, as outlined earlier in this chapter, a pandemic planning exercise had been conducted with the DoH and the NSW Ministry of Health concerning a cruise ship entering Sydney. The fact that the circumstances of the Ruby Princess unfolded in the way they did implies that past exercises may not have been adequate, or that these past exercises were not used to adequately inform the real-life response.
The committee will continue to seek answers on the government's handling of the Ruby Princess, including:
why government officials would not appear before the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry into the incident;
what the 'bespoke arrangements' which the Prime Minister said were in place 'under the direct command of the Australian Border Force' for cruise ships such as the Ruby Princess actually were;
why passengers commenced disembarking prior to formal pratique being granted, and who advised them to do so;
why protocols designed to work in concert with the work of NSW Health were ignored;
why passengers on the Ruby Princess were not placed in hotel quarantine, similar to the passengers on the Diamond Princess; and
whether the government's actions in relation to the Ruby Princess aligned with what had been agreed during the pandemic planning exercise run in May 2019 concerning a cruise ship entering Sydney.