ABUL RIZVI: The Ruby Princess – how could this have happened?

The Ruby Princess, along with a number of other cruise ships that arrived in Australia around the same time, will go down in Australian history as a super spreader of disease and death.

The coronavirus initially entered Australia through people carrying the virus into the country. Thus Australia’s first line of defence against the virus was at airports and seaports.

Being an island, Australia was better placed to prevent entry of the virus, or at least slow its entry, especially with the new Department of Home Affairs assuming control of all border functions.

Remember being told the new Home Affairs portfolio would make us safer than ever and that was because the Government’s first priority is the safety of Australians!

That just makes the disaster of the Ruby Princess all the more surprising.

To understand what went wrong, there is merit in going back into the chronology of the virus and how different governments responded in terms of border controls and checks.

A chronology of the virus

According to Chinese Government officials, the first coronavirus case was confirmed on 17 November 2019. However, it was not until 12 January 2020 that the Chinese state broadcaster reported “a new viral outbreak was first detected in the city of Wuhan, China.”

A ‘pneumonia of unknown cause’ was reported on 20 January 2020 by the Chinese Centre of Disease Control and Prevention. On the same day, Chinese premier Li Keqiang publicly urged “decisive and effective efforts to prevent and control the epidemic”.

Given how closely the Australian Government monitors Chinese media, by that stage our Government would have known of the threat of the virus spreading to Australia given the enormous volume of people movement between Australia and China.

On 21 January, the World Health Organisation (WHO) issued its first situation report on the virus.

The WHO would issue another 10 situation reports on the virus before the end of January and on 30 January, it declared the virus a “public health emergency of international concern”.

On 24 January, the Vietnamese authorities ceased all flights from Wuhan and by 30 January had shut down all flights from China.

Singapore immigration and port authorities started temperature checking of all new arrivals on 24 January and the Russian Far East closed its border to China.

On 25 January, Hong Kong declared a state of emergency and the next day banned all residents of Wuhan from entering Hong Kong.

Mongolia closed its border with China on 27 January; Malaysia banned all travellers from Hubei and surrounding provinces.

From 28 January, the Philippines and Sri Lanka suspended visa on-arrival for Chinese nationals.

On 29 January, PNG banned all travellers from Asia, including Indonesia.

Australia’s border response

The Australian Government announced that it would “deny entry to Australia for people who have left or transited through mainland China from February 1”. Around the same time as the Trump Administration.

Australia was far from “amongst the first to close its border to China” as some in the Government have claimed.

The Prime Minister is also reported to have said as part of the 1 February announcement that “there’ll be advanced screening and reception arrangements put into place at the major airports to facilitate identifying and providing this information and ensuring the appropriate precautions are being put in place,”

“There’ll also be thermometers which are provided to those airports and we’re working with those airport authorities now to ensure we can put those arrangements in place.”

A few key points about these announcements.

Firstly, there is no mention of seaports – perhaps just an omission or was it the case that the new screening arrangements did not apply to seaports?

Secondly, were the thermometers provided to airport authorities or to DHA staff doing the screening? Either way, how were the thermometers used, if they were used at all? And were they also provided to seaports such as Circular Quay?

Finally, apart from providing arrivals with an information sheet, exactly what were the ‘advanced screening and reception arrangements’?

The Ruby Princess

Many arrivals, including from cruise ships such as the Ruby Princess, have reported nothing more than receiving an information sheet.

NSW Health Officials have said they followed national guidelines which allow passengers to disembark if the route is considered ‘low risk’.

But what of the role of our famous border protectors Peter Dutton and Mike Pezzullo who said the new DHA portfolio would keep Australians safe?

Did they also consider the Ruby Princess ‘low risk’? What border screening actually took place for the Ruby Princess is an issue on which Dutton and Pezzullo have been awfully quiet.

Temperature Checking

A key question is why Australia has not implemented border screening arrangements with body temperature checking as introduced by the Singapore authorities from 24 January and also used by South Korean authorities?

On the other hand, US authorities claim that in airports where temperature checks have been used, they have not been effective at detecting the virus.

After SARS, the Commonwealth in 2004 purchased a number of full body scanners to check the temperature of all arrivals. These were mothballed in 2010 with a view to re-introducing them when needed.

While that does not appear to have occurred, it is clear from the Prime Minister’s border control announcement from 1 February that he considers taking people’s temperature is a useful means of detecting travellers who may have the virus – otherwise why give thermometers to airports – whether used or not used?

A recent European study finds that temperature checks only detect the virus in around 55 percent of cases. Some may argue that is not worth spending the money to set up and run temperature checking at the border. Others may argue that detecting even 55 percent of cases is a worthwhile measure.

The question that arises, and one we may never know the answer to, is how many cases of coronavirus would have been detected and able to be quarantined from spreading the virus, if Dutton and Pezzullo had introduced temperature checking and associated targeted interviews, at airports and seaports from late January?

Would they have detected many of the cases on the Ruby Princess and other recently arrived cruise ships? Would they have detected a few of the many cases arriving from the US through our airports?

Abul Rizvi was a senior official in the Department of Immigration from the early 1990s to 2007 when he left as Deputy Secretary. He was awarded the Public Service Medal and the Centenary Medal for services to development and implementation of immigration policy, including in particular the reshaping of Australia’s intake to focus on skilled migration. He is currently doing a PhD on Australia’s immigration policies.

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14 Responses to ABUL RIZVI: The Ruby Princess – how could this have happened?

  1. Tomas MacAogain says:

    Two things about the serious Ruby Princess risk realisation are of particular concern:

    1) Federal / State risk management divergences and uncertainties on matters of mutual concern: do each of the Federal (Home Affairs, Health and Agriculture) and the relevant State authorities each have their own SEPARATE (and possibly very different) risk management plans and risk assessment levels and treatments for this type of eventuality? This is a possible constitutional ‘Achilles heel’in the matter of where Federal and State powers intersect.

    2) Anecdotal testimony reported in the media at least one of the Ruby Princess passengers to the effect that passports (repeat “passports”) were ‘not checked’ before they were allowed to disembark.

    “Didn’t check passports or anything.” See:
    https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-03-23/cruise-passengers-not-tested-for-coronavirus-before-disembarking/12081426

    No one is saying that the jobs of the relevant Federal and State authorities, particularly in such unusual and confusing circumstances as pertain today, are easy. But an urgent in depth inquiry, analysis, and resolution / clarification of the relevant risk management and passport control matters is needed.

  2. Jim KABLE says:

    As I read through material from Australia and overseas – and much of that from trusted sources – my feeling is that the arrest and charging of Dutton and his henchman Svengali Pezzullo is long long overdue. Charges need to be laid because already people have died – largely due to their incompetence – and that also, by the way, includes asylum-seekers on Manus (PNG) and on Nauru – not just the corona-virus COVID-19 matter. Felix re “empire-building” and Frederika re Tourism Scott – and an insane glancing for answers to the UK and the US political “leaders” make strong points.

  3. Kien Choong says:

    Could Abul Aziz give a reference for the claim that Chinese authorities confirmed the first coronavirus case on 17 November? It’s not consistent with other chronology that I have seen so far, which suggests that a Chinese doctor first reported a case of unknown cause on 27 December. It’s likely that patients with an unknown viral infection were already hospitalised by then, and perhaps as early as 17 November, but as best I can tell, Chinese authorities were only alerted in late December.

    Given that the WHO was informed on 31 December, it doesn’t seem to be objectively fair to assert (as many have) that Chinese authorities had “covered up” the infection.

    It seems understandable that Chinese authorities did not immediately appreciate the significance of the unknown virus. Considering how slow so many Western countries reacted to the outbreak in China, we can hardly accuse Chinese authorities of incompetence, let alone mischief.

    • Abul Rizvi says:

      17 November is apparently the first time doctors encountered the virus. It was first reported publicly much later.

  4. Abul Rizvi says:

    Spot on Ian. DHA and other relevant Depts wouldhave alerted Ministers to this. Why did they not act according to the plan?

  5. Ian Bryant says:

    From the Australian Government’s Pandemic Plan (pdf at address below) page 116:
    “Identification measures:
    – Entry screening
    o Negative pratique
    o Passenger locator documents
    o Thermal scanners
    o Border nurses
    o Screening of passengers on cruise ships prior to disembarkation, where there is evidence of cases of influenza on board”

    The last dot point was clearly not followed with the Ruby Princess, where there were claims over 150 people reported ‘flu-like symptoms’. The other dot points do not appear to have been followed widely either.

    https://www1.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/519F9392797E2DDCCA257D47001B9948/$File/w-AHMPPI-2019.PDF

  6. Jose Alvarez says:

    Abul raises some very valid points and questions that need to be answered. I arrived at Melbourne airport on Monday after a trip to Vietnam and Bangkok (returning via Singapore). There were no heat scanners to be seen, as I experienced on another trip during the SARS, outbreak and did not see any officials with thermometers. They might have well hidden but I thought given where the aeroplane was coming from there would have been a lot of checking. Lots of officials in their OH&S appropriate ‘overalls’ but apart from handing over information leaflets, and one to complete, on the virus many seem to be standing around like traffic wardens. I was surprised that the e-gates were still being used as apart from a question on the ticket terminal asking whether you were aware of the need to quarantine for a fortnight no other information or interaction. In the current environment, and with no further incoming flights, you would have thought it prudent to shut down the e-gates and divert everyone to an ABF Officer for processing so they could in fact check your temperature and reinforce the quarantine message. The new Home Affairs leadership clearly have a new risk management model to those used in the past. I hope it works for all our sakes.

    • Felix MacNeill says:

      I fear their risk strategy is essentially just “build the Minister’s empire and save as much money as possible on anything useful like capable and properly resourced staff; anything else is trivial (except for trying to embarrass Labor and the Greens at all times and by any means, whether fair or foul)”

    • Abul Rizvi says:

      Hi Jose (long time no see).

      I don’t blame the ABF Commissioner for this at all. As you would know, his officers would have operated the process they had policy authority and resources to implement. What I find most surprising is that after the PM’s announcement of stronger health screening as part of the changes for 1 February, very little seems to have changed other than the information sheet.

      Did Home Affairs and/or Health and/or Agriculture propose stronger health screening and were rejected (in which case it is a matter for Morrison and/or Dutton) or did they not propose anything stronger at all (in which case it is a matter for Dutton/Pezzullo)?

      Abul

      • Frederika STEEN says:

        Abdul, delighted to have relevant facts! I am somewhat obsessed with the PM’s mental framework and his allegiances. As the prince of populist , mass tourism, I can’t see him “upsetting” the tourism industry. The rise of the floating Petrie Dishes industry marketed so heavily to my generation of affluent retirees , is a recent phenomenon, with 2 floating hotels a day in Hobart during the season. Experience of gastric outbreaks should have been a warning, but alas. Everyone has to cruise! imagination missing about something more deadly. Does the PM listen to advice from governments other than Trump’s or Boris’? From Vietnam or Taiwan? To experts? Such irony, that the man who climbed the greasy political pole by persecuting the already persecutedwho came on leaky boats, should come unstuck by not stopping the luxury big boats with an unwanted arrival which threatens our society and mocks our parochialism and nationalism . One world. Humankind. A virus knows no border .

        • Abul Rizvi says:

          The virus is carried by people. Better border management could have slowed its spread and saved lives.

  7. Ian Bell says:

    Responsibility + accountability? Heads should roll, to warn others that incompetence and/or slackness/recklessness will not be tolerated.

  8. roma guerin says:

    You may well ask. Do let us know if you every get an answer from the MIA Dutton and Pezzullo. Similar to their disappearance during the recent bushfire crisis. Keeping Australians safe? Don’t make me laugh.

  9. John NOBEL says:

    ScoVid-19 seems to have replaced Black Summer 2019/ 2020 on screens and frontpages, be it flooding or fires, presumably whilst parliament is away emergency orders to be a bigot or the right to hide behind a whiteboard will still be …

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