The hotel manager on board the Ruby Princess was surprised guests who had been tested for COVID-19 had been permitted to leave the ill-fated cruise ship before results were released, a NSW commission of inquiry has heard.
The Ruby Princess special inquiry heard on Thursday from hotel manager Charles Verwall that the situation on sister ship Diamond Princess – quarantined in Japan in February due to a COVID-19 outbreak – had alerted crew to the risks of the virus.
Mr Verwall said social distancing was implemented from the start of the cruise on March 8 as well as increased cleaning protocols and changes to the kitchen service.
But no changes were made to entertainment areas, including nightclubs and shows.
The Ruby Princess cruise ship is seen docked at Port Kembla on April 23, in Wollongong, NSW
A ‘Thank You Illawarra’ sign hangs from the stern of the Ruby Princess cruise ship. Princess Cruises donated $50,000 to the Mission to Seafarers at Port Kembla charity
Crew from onboard the Ruby Princess cruise ship wave to the cameras as they depart Port Kembla in buses in Wollongong, NSW,on Thursday, April 23, in gloves and face masks
Ruby Princess crew members are excited to leave Wollongong after spending weeks on the quarantined cruise ship
The crew from the Ruby Princess are placed on planes back to their home countries while wearing rubber gloves and face masks
He said there was concern on board that passengers could be presenting signs of the virus, but this was difficult to confirm after five negative COVID-19 test results came back from New Zealand – the destination of the 11-day cruise voyage.
He added no NSW Health personnel boarded the ship on arrival in Sydney on March 19 in contrast to their meticulous inspections on March 8.
NSW Police Deputy Commissioner Gary Worboys on Thursday told reporters authorities were ‘extremely confident’ the Ruby Princess’ departure from Port Kembla was imminent, with about 500 crew members remaining on board.
The ship has been docked for more than two weeks after a COVID-19 outbreak, with the vessel so far linked to 21 coronavirus deaths and up to 600 infections across Australia.
Cruise ship crew wait to get off the charter bus in Sydney on April 23. More than 300 crew members are being repatriated on Thursday afternoon
Crew from the Ruby Princess cruise ship are seen arriving at Sydney International Airport
As crews are sent home, inquiries are set to begin into why passengers were allowed to disembark from the ship prior to the confirmation of COVID-19 test results for ill passengers
Groups have been disembarking the ship since Tuesday. About 550 crew members will leave the vessel by Thursday afternoon
More than 300 crew members are currently disembarking the ship and will be taken to Sydney Airport where they will fly home to the Philippines on Thursday evening.
Groups have been disembarking the ship since Tuesday, with Mr Worboys saying about 550 crew members would leave the vessel by Thursday afternoon.
‘A good quantity on that boat are willing to travel on that vessel,’ Mr Worboys said.
Those who tested negative to COVID-19 were taken to either Sydney Airport or a hotel in NSW to await flights to their country of origin.
A total of 21 crew members who disembarked the ship have tested positive for COVID-19 and have been taken to hotels for a 14-day quarantine period. A dozen crew members infected with coronavirus had previously been taken to NSW hospitals.
Army personnel in face masks watch as a charter bus that unloaded crew from the Ruby Princess Cruise ship departs Sydney Airport on April 23
Crew of the Ruby Princess Cruise Ship depart a charter bus at Sydney Airport on April 23
Those who tested negative to COVID-19 were taken to either Sydney Airport or a hotel in NSW to await flights to their country of origin
NSW chief health officer Dr Kerry Chant said health authorities have been working with the Australian Border Force, police, Aspen Medical, and the ship’s medical crew, and was confident the on-board coronavirus outbreak was under control.
‘The ship is now in a position to set sail,’ she told reporters.
Princess Cruises president Jan Swartz said in a statement on Thursday the Ruby Princess crew members had shown strength amid difficult circumstances.
She also thanked the Illawarra community for supporting the crew, with the cruise liner donating $50,000 to the Mission to Seafarers at Port Kembla charity.
‘The Illawarra community never lost sight of the fact that this was all about people caught up in difficult circumstances that were not of their making,’ Ms Swartz said.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian on Thursday insisted she had not been informed the inquiry, overseen by Bret Walker SC, would hold its first public hearing on Wednesday. She said this was appropriate to ensure the inquiry’s independence.
It is running parallel to a NSW Police probe expected to deliver its findings by September.
A Cebu Pacific aircraft will ferry crew from the Ruby Princess cruise ship to Manila in the Philippines