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

Mar 25, 2020

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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