A senior NSW Health official has issued a tearful apology over the government department’s failures in dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak aboard the Ruby Princess cruise ship.
Giving evidence to the Ruby Princess special commission of inquiry, NSW Health Public Health Unit epidemiologist and co-ordinator of the department’s cruise ship health program Kelly Anne Ressler said that if she and her colleagues had their time over the situation “would be very different”.
During questioning, the inquiry’s Commissioner Bret Walker asked Ms Ressler why he shouldn’t rule there had been a “reprehensible shortcoming” by NSW Health for allowing passengers to disembark the ship – reducing her to tears.
“All I can say is that I’m very sorry it turned out the way it did. It was not our intention,” she said.
“Myself and my colleagues at the public health unit were working very hard on this. We did what we could. And if we could do it again, it would be very different.”
Ms Ressler told the commission an expert health panel had been created to specifically look into the risks of COVID-19 earlier in 2020.
Although not part of the panel, she was involved in providing “assistance and suggestions” towards a draft protocol document, which was released on February 19.
The protocol suggested all passengers visit a ship’s medical centre if they had respiratory symptoms or a fever, with isolation to follow.
But, Ms Ressler said, while a ship was at sea she had “no jurisdiction” to control what actions were taken.
Some 2700 passengers were allowed to disembark on March 19, after the ship docked in Sydney’s Circular Quay. The Ruby Princess has since been linked to more than 20 coronavirus deaths and 600 infections across Australia.
The federal department overseeing biosecurity arrangement has said NSW Health “advised there were no issues preventing disembarkation”.
Counsel assisting Richard Beasley SC said there were only 25 COVID-19 test kits available on board the cruise ship with only 13 people swabbed by the time the ship docked.
Mr Walker asked if Ms Ressler thought it was strange more people were tested for influenza than for coronavirus.
“I wasn’t part of the decision-making for developing the testing criteria and until you raise it with me now I wasn’t aware it was so unsatisfactory,” Ms Ressler replied.
The special commission is required to deliver its final report by mid-August. A separate Senate inquiry into the Ruby Princess began on Tuesday in Canberra, while a NSW Police criminal probe is also underway.
– With wires