Debacle: More than 2400 passengers got off the Ruby Princess cruise ship – and 26 of them have tested positive to COVID-19
The Australian government missed critical opportunities to secure the country’s borders against a coronavirus outbreak, a leading infection control expert says, as the nation plunges into shutdown.
Professor Bill Bowtell, a health adviser who led Australia’s world-leading response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, said the Federal government should have introduced temperature testing at the border, as Taiwan and Singapore have done.
The nation also could have shut the door on travellers from the United States, where there appears to have been a large number of undetected cases.
The expert’s remarks come as Daily Mail Australia can reveal police are yet to fine or charge a single person for breaching new self-isolation rules upon arriving in Australia, raising serious questions about the regime.
‘It has been very clear for weeks and months what controls should be put in place at borders,’ said Prof Bowtell, from the University of New South Wales’s Kirby Institute of Infection and Immunity.
‘A lot of things that ought to have happened at airports did not happen … You have to ask why that didn’t happen in Australia’.
A health expert said ‘a lot of things that ought to have happened at airports did not happen’. Above, the scene at Sydney Airport last Friday
Bill Bowtell, from the UNSW Kirby Institute of Infection and Immunity
As authorities gnash their teeth over serious border bungles – including 50 infected passengers walking off a cruise ship in Sydney – Prof Bowtell said the Australia should have looked to Taiwan and Singapore, which have been widely praised for seemingly getting in control of the pandemic.
Taiwan itself has a similar sized population to Australia, with 23 million people, but years of experience of dealing with infectious diseases such as SARS.
The island has reported just 153 positive cases and two deaths, compared to Australia’s more than 1600 cases and seven deaths.
Both countries have both enforced strict border measures and intense contact tracing and quarantine since the outbreak first began in Wuhan, China, last December. Singapore even has a contact-tracing app, so authorities can see where infected people have been.
While Australia’s borders may have closed last week, the nation will be grappling with the fallout from infectious international arrivals for months to come.
Bungles at the border
The crisis of international arrivals landing in Australia with the disease was thrown into stark relief at the weekend.
South Australian officials revealed 10 US tourists travelling through the state’s Barossa wine region had tested positive.
Three flights from San Francisco into Sydney alone carried infected passengers last Monday
Authorities said the tourists arrived in the state separately and were believed to have flown into SA.
US citizens could still fly into the country until the border closed at 9pm on Friday.
Last Monday alone, positive COVID-19 cases were detected on three flights from San Francisco to Sydney: Qantas flights QF12 and QF4 and United flight UA863.
OUTBREAKS FROM FOREIGNERS ARRIVING IN AUSTRALIA
At least thirty-five cases have been linked to a wedding at Stanwell Tops in Sydney’s south on March 6. The transmissions were possibly linked to a couple who travelled from the US.
Ten American tourists tested positive for COVID-19 during a wine tour to South Australia’s Barossa Valley last week.
Every day from March 1 to March 17 international flights brought infected cases into Australia at Sydney airport alone, NSW Health data shows.
Fifty passengers who disembarked the Ruby Princess cruise ship have tested positive to the virus.
They were allowed to land despite the government already closing the border to arrivals Italy, Iran, China and South Korea, all infection hotspots.
Prof Bowtell said the government’s early closure of the border to Chinese visitors was ‘commendable’ .
But it clearly took some time for the Federal Government to extend the same measures to the whole world.
Meanwhile, NSW authorities have revealed 50 passengers allowed off the Ruby Princess cruise ship have tested positive.
An incredible 2,647 passengers were allowed to disembark from that ship in total.
Four separate cruises affected by COVID-19 were also allowed to dock in Sydney.
The cruise ship debacle has sparked a blame game between the Federal and State governments over who was responsible.
A Department of Home Affairs spokesman pointed out the border is now closed to foreign nationals and all Australian citizens and residents are required to self-isolate.
The spokesman said: ‘Our number one priority is to slow the spread of coronavirus and save lives’. (The Health ministry was approached for comment).
A list of finternational lights into Sydney with passengers who tested positive to COVID-19. On right, rows possibly affected
Some the final international travellers into Sydney before the borders shut to non-citizens and residents on Friday night
Ramping up: A staff member in protective medical clothing speaks to arriving passengers in Brisbane on last Monday
Fears at the airport
WHAT THE HEALTH MINISTER SAYS
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt was confronted about the cruise ship, airport checks and South Australian tour group on Sunrise on Monday.
Mr Hunt said the government has imposed a universal quarantine on all passengers flying into the country. Everyone must self-isolate for 14 days upon arriving Down Under.
The Cabinet official also noted Australia was one of the first countries in the world to close its borders to China, Iran, South Korae and Italy.
The health minister said everyone who lands is disembarks in Australia is given information about self-isolation and people who are perceived as unwell are reviewed.
But he said: ‘We will continue to step those items up.’
Daily Mail Australia put questions to the Federal Health Department but a spokesperson was unable to respond by deadline. Mr Hunt’s office was approached for comment.
Australians arriving home in recent days have fretted that there aren’t enough checks being done at our borders, as countries overseas are doing.
News Corp columnist Troy Bramston was left deeply disturbed after flying in from London, via Dubai, on Saturday, shortly after the border closure.
‘I’m deeply worried that we are not taking enough precautions for coronavirus,’ he tweeted.
‘Sailed through customs/quarantine in minutes. No small group checking for symptoms, prolonged questioning or heat sensor equipment used in Dubai.
‘Why are people getting off a plane with zero testing and minimal observation then walking straight into a crowd of people waiting, getting in taxis, buying drinks/food and duty free?’
One elderly couple from Britain said they were in the air when Australia’s strict ban on foreigners was introduced.
When they arrived in Adelaide they declared that not only had they been in Britain before coming to Australia, but also in Spain – which has been ravaged by the virus.
‘They told us we’d need to self-isolate for 14 days, but we said, ‘we’re only in Adelaide for three days, and then we are going to Melbourne for a two and on to Sydney to see our son.
‘They just said ‘we can’t force you to do anything’ and away we went.
‘We were shocked to be honest and have done our best since – but we’ve been to three cities now. Australia has been too relaxed.’
A passenger who flew in from Queenstown, New Zealand, to Sydney the first day self-isolation restrictions kicked in said she and her husband was just waved through.
We’ve been to three cities … Australia has been too relaxed
‘A customers officer asked us a few questions and we were considered low risk’, the passenger said.
‘They just asked ‘where did you come from’ and ‘have you been to any other countries.’
They agreed to abide by isolation restrictions when prompted by an e-passport desk. Like hundreds of passengers, they were handed a letter about self-isolating.
No one has checked on the couple, who live in New South Wales, to ensure they are abiding by the isolation requirements.
Police haven’t fined anyone
CORONAVIRUS CASES IN AUSTRALIA: 1,630
New South Wales: 669
Western Australia: 140
South Australia: 100
Australian Capital Territory: 20
Northern Territory: 5
TOTAL CASES: 1,630
State police forces told Daily Mail Australia they are yet to charge anyone or issue a single fine for breaking isolation during the coronavirus pandemic – despite widespread evidence of clear breaches of enforcement.
The nation’s chief medical officer, Professor Brendan Murphy, told reporters on Sunday evening that there had been examples of people flouting self-isolation rules.
‘We’ve seen some irresponsible behaviour from people who were told to quarantine and have not. And they have spread the virus,’ he fumed.
Queensland Police said officers have conducted 1,850 checks as of March 16, but no one in the state has been fined for breaching a self-isolation order.
Daily Mail Australia understands self-isolation checks in Queensland are no longer being carried out after an initial phase of enforcement.
Queensland Police were reluctant to issue fines because from the moment the first penalty was issued, authorities would have to continue doing so at the same level, Daily Mail Australia has been told.
NSW and South Australia Police both refused to reveal statistics, but there have been no reports of anyone in either state being charged or fined for breaching quarantine.
Police patrol Bondi Beach on Sunday after thousands of people flouted social distancing rules
Officers closed Balmoral Beach – a popular site in Sydney’s north – on Sunday as the crackdown began
Victoria Police has confirmed nobody has been charged in the state for breaking self-isolation but would not comment on fine.
MAXIMUM PENALTIES FOR BREACHING PUBLIC HEALTH ORDERS
NSW – $11,000 fine and six months jail
QLD – $13,345 fine
SA – $25,000 fine
WA – $50,000 and 12 months jail
TAS- $8,400 fine
VIC – $6,600 fine
But that state’s premier, Daniel Andrews, announced Victoria Police have now allocated 500 police to a special task force for enforcing coronavirus rules.
Western Australia Police is yet to respond to a request for comment.
From Tuesday afternoon, South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory will extend compulsory isolation periods to anyone arriving from interstate.
Australians who refuse to follow public health acts can be jailed for up to a year or be fined as much as $50,000, with penalties varying by state.
Each state has different punishments for breaches of public health orders.
In New South Wales, people who breach the public health order can be fined up to $11,000 and face six months behind bars.
Queenslanders that fail to comply with health orders could see fines of up to $13,345 along with other penalties, while Victorians could face a fine of up to $6,600.
The country’s battle with the disease is just beginning.
Ten elderly US tourists tested positive to COVID-19 in the Barossa wine region