Federal Authorities Blame NSW Health For Ruby Princess Debacle
The heads of Australia's border authorities have blamed NSW Health for the Ruby Princess cruise ship debacle as they deflected responsibility from their own officers.
The chief of the Home Affairs department on Tuesday was quizzed over the fiasco which led to more than 20 deaths and hundreds of cases of coronavirus across Australia.
Michael Pezzullo told a Senate committee there was no one department or individual responsible for allowing the cruise ship to dock at Sydney's Circular Quay on March 19, and its 2700 passengers to disembark.
In an exchange with Labor's home affairs spokeswoman Kristina Keneally, Pezzullo said if there was one "overseeing supremo" responsible for all failures then they could also lay claim to all coronavirus-fighting successes.
"This is perverse, illogical and contradictory," he said.
However, he later told the committee "on aggregate" border protection efforts had been a success, to the extent that "tens of thousands of lives have been saved" including by state health officers "who have made the excellent calls that will go down the history".
Agriculture officials were also questioned by the inquiry as the department which oversees biosecurity.
But the department's secretary, Andrew Metcalfe, told the committee NSW Health had final say over human biosecurity on the Ruby Princess and his officers were responsible for livestock, not people.
They only passed paperwork between the ship's medical officer and state health officials.
"Like you're a post box," inquiry chair, Labor Senator Katy Gallagher, said.
Customs officers relied on NSW Health to give the final call on clearing the ship's passengers, Metcalfe said.
Senator Keneally revealed there had been four reports from the cruise ship listing its coronavirus cases and rising 140 per cent within 12 hours, from 17 to 24, just seven hours before the Ruby Princess was given permission to dock.
However, an ABF officer told the harbour master the Ruby Princess posed a low risk to Australia.
Border Force chief Michael Outram defended the junior officer, saying she had simply shared information she'd received from doctors with Sydney's Harbour Master.
The harbour master has authority over which vessels can dock in the harbour, Commissioner Outram said.
The ABF officer did not tell the harbour master what to do but if she had, he would probably have complied.
The commissioner personally had no legal authority to stop the ship and had only become aware of positive COVID-19 cases onboard the cruise about 12 hours after passengers had already disembarked.
He said he raised the issue with Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton on March 20.
The Senate committee will hear from the Attorney-General department and health officials on Wednesday.
A separate special commission inquiry was holding hearings on Tuesday in Sydney, while a NSW Police criminal probe is also underway.
The Ruby Princess is steaming off the east coast of the southern Philippine island of Mindanao en route to Manila.
The ship departed Port Kembla in Wollongong almost a fortnight ago.