SYDNEY – Homicide detectives in the Australian state of New South Wales have stepped up their investigations into the handling of Covid-19 cases on a cruise ship after a 13th passenger died from the virus on April 7.
The man, who was in his 80s, left the Ruby Princess with 1,700 other tourists after it moored in Sydney on March 19. More than 600 have since tested positive for Covid-19, and hundreds of crew members have symptoms of the disease.
Normally tasked with probing murders and other suspicious fatalities, the police unit is looking into reports that the cruise ship covered up potential cases of the virus before the passengers disembarked, leading to deaths.
The ship has been one of Australia’s main sources of Covid-19 infections, according to reports.
Princess Cruises, a company owned by the California-headquartered, Bermuda-incorporated Carnival Corporation and PLC, operates the Ruby Princess and was the second biggest cruise line revenue earner worldwide in 2018.
The evolving investigation has put an uncomfortable spotlight on the notion of Covid-19 liability, namely who should be held accountable for infections contracted on a commercial enterprises’ premises and at what cost.
“The only way I can get to the bottom of whether our national biosecurity laws and our state laws were broken is through a criminal investigation,” said police chief Mick Fuller. There were “many unanswered questions.”
Crew members are still onboard the ship, which was taken under police guard to a mooring at Port Kembla, south of Sydney, in the evening of April 5. Fuller said its captain and crew, as well as state health minister Brad Hazzard, will be interviewed.
A political row has also erupted over the decision by health officials to allow passengers to disembark without any virus checks.
They have since scattered across Australia and several hundred are known to have flown abroad. It is not known yet how many passengers subsequently became ill outside of Australia.
Hazzard said health officials followed federal guidelines, which stated at the time that passengers only needed to be screened if their ship had visited a Covid-19 hot spot.
The Ruby Princess stopped in New Zealand, which currently has reported 1,100 cases of the virus, and then returned to Sydney.
Napier, one New Zealand town visited by the ship, has 16 confirmed or probable Covid-19 cases that were traced back to the Ruby Princess after it docked on March 15. Hawke’s Bay medical officer Nick Jones said the ship was initially denied clearance to disembark after reports of illnesses.
“The ship declared it had several passengers unwell with Influenza A (which was later confirmed through the ship’s onboard testing), but one passenger that did not return an Influenza A result. Therefore, the ship’s master was advised that if Covid-19 could not be excluded, the vessel would not be granted clearance to disembark in Napier,” Jones said.
However, subsequent tests for the virus returned negative results, and the ship was cleared for disembarkation. Unwell passengers stayed on board.
Passengers have said that by the time the Ruby Princess reached Sydney many people were coughing or showing other symptoms of illness. Police are looking into reports that a crew member called emergency services the day before it arrived to alert health officials that two passengers were ill.
Health officials in Sydney said no Covid-19 cases were identified on the ship before it docked and most passengers had no symptoms when they disembarked. However, the ship had no capability to test for the virus.
Former passenger Anthony Londero, 62, has confirmed that he was one of two people who went to the ship medical staff with respiratory problems before the vessel reached Sydney. He was taken to hospital on the same day that it docked in Sydney and afterward tested positive for the virus.
“I started to feel unwell and started to feel there was something to be very concerned about,” Londero told the Sydney Morning Herald.
“When I came to the ship’s hospital they thought I was having a heart attack – because of the virus causing stress on my heart. They never mentioned coronavirus, I thought it was something else,” he said.
Leaked emails indicate that ill passengers were tested for the virus by health staff when they docked, but they were allowed off before the results were returned.
The cruise ship company said anyone who had become unwell onboard had been put into isolation.
The company said it will hand over all documentation on the voyage to Sydney, including emails, text messages, radio transmissions and medical correspondence between the ship’s doctor and its captain, to police investigators.
One potentially damning line of inquiry is that crew were pressured to cover up potential infections so the ship’s tour schedule would not be disrupted. Australian labor unions said this often happens on ships due to poor health systems.
“Any accurate diagnosis of a virus like the coronavirus is left to medically untrained seafarers, as well as ships masters who simply would not be familiar with the symptoms and diagnosis of coronavirus as part of their medical first aid on board ship certificate,” Maritime Union of Australia assistant secretary Paul Garrett said in an email released to the media.
Garrett said it was also common for crew members to keep quiet even when they were sick themselves because they feared losing their jobs. Several of the 1,040 Ruby Princess crew members were hospitalized in Sydney with Covid-19 and a further 200 are showing symptoms.
They are likely to be treated in Australia, but the remaining employees will be put on flights home. Crew were recruited from about 50 different countries.
Fuller said the ship would be docked for 10 days in Port Kembla, an industrial suburb in the city of Wollongong 100 kilometers from Sydney, while the investigation proceeded and the vessel took on more fuel and supplies.
Medical officials are on board assessing the crew members, who have all been put into isolation in their cabins. The ship’s home port is Bermuda.