Cursed ship has sailed but there are lessons to be learnt

At the time, it seemed inconceivable. The footage of the cruise liner Ruby Princess disgorging hundreds of passengers onto the streets of Sydney without even the most rudimentary health check shocked a nation. How could the system put in place to protect Australia from the emerging pandemic have broken down so comprehensively? Now we know why, in considerable detail.

The Special Commission of Inquiry into the Ruby Princess is nothing but thorough in its blow-by-blow account of how the calamitous decision unfolded that determined the risk of passengers and crew having COVID-19 was "low".

Passengers sit with their luggage after disembarking from the Ruby Princess cruise ship on March 19 at Sydney’s Circular Quay.Credit:Kate Geraghty

What the inquiry makes clear is that there was no one tragic moment, or meeting, or fateful judgment that led to the assessment. It was more mundane than that. Much more a culmination of mistakes that led to the outcome, which included the infection of more than 700 passengers and 202 crew. At the centre of that process was the NSW Health expert panel put in charge of making the risk assessment.

There is no suggestion that malicious intent or political interference was at play. Or that the expertise of the panel was in doubt. The mistakes were mostly procedural: revised criteria of a suspected COVID-19 case were not taken into account, critical paperwork was not updated, panel members failed to properly assess the ship’s medical logs. Time and time again, when the alarm bells should have been ringing, they either ignored or were ignorant of the warning signs.

But testimony from the panel members also paints a picture of the rationale used to justify the Ruby Princess decision. Five passengers tested in Wellington for COVID-19 had all received negative results. No passengers had recently visited major pandemic hotspots. Fewer than 1 per cent of those on board had shown influenza-like symptoms.

These factors are not an excuse, nor a reason not to be shocked by the lack of thoroughness during the decision-making process. But they are a timely reminder of how bad judgments can be made by qualified people, with the best of intentions, based on assumptions that are not without validity. Hindsight can be extremely difficult to confront when the outcome is so disastrous.

This pandemic has stretched the scale and scope of what governments are responsible for far beyond their normal duties. Much of it can result in life and death consequences. When significant mistakes are made, there does need to be transparency and accountability. Bret Walker, SC, head of the Ruby Princess inquiry, has certainly provided that, and should be commended for his work.

But during such extraordinary times what of the doctrine of ministerial responsibility that is central to the Westminster parliamentary system? Should the buck always stop with our political leaders? Fighting a pandemic is not for the faint-hearted. As experience has shown, the virus can thrive when even the smallest of errors are made.

Public hearings into Victoria’s hotel quarantine debacle will recommence on Monday. As with the Ruby Princess, an inquiry is an essential step in ensuring transparency and accountability. Those involved in establishing the system that so disastrously failed are sure to feel the heat of intense questioning. As it should be.

Note from the Editor

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But there should also be an acceptance that while accountability and responsibility are fundamental tenets of our political system, government departments and their political masters are bearing an extremely heavy burden in managing this health and economic crisis. Finding that balance could be crucial in how well Australia weathers this pandemic.

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