Australian officials have admitted they failed to carry out mandatory health checks on board a cruise ship that became the source of one of the country’s largest coronavirus clusters.
Andrew Metcalfe, the secretary for the Department of Agriculture, told the Senate Covid-19 committee on Tuesday that protocols had not been followed.
More than 2,650 people were allowed off the Ruby Princess without being tested.
It led to 28 deaths and about 1,000 infections in Australia and overseas.
Health checks by officials from the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment were supposed to be a last line of defence against transmission after coronavirus cases were found on the Ruby Princess.
But the ship was given permission to dock in Sydney and its passengers allowed to leave without being tested, Mr Metcalfe admitted.
“In hindsight, the national protocol was not followed and the officers believed that they were exercising their responsibilities appropriately through the communication that did occur with the [New South Wales] Health Department,” he said.
The Senate committee also heard that Australian Border Force (ABF) officers had checked medical tests of 13 passengers and incorrectly concluded they were coronavirus free, despite the ABF having no authority over such health testing.
Speaking to the committee, the ABF commissioner Michael Outram, acknowledged that it was not his officers’ job to check passengers’ health.
Last week, an inquiry found that New South Wales (NSW) state health authorities made “serious mistakes” in allowing thousands of passengers to disembark when the ship docked in Sydney in March.
The passengers were allowed to leave Sydney Harbour and catch public transport and domestic and overseas flights home.
An inquiry report released last week found NSW Health had mischaracterised the ship as low-risk, and said it was “inexcusable” that officials had failed to immediately obtain results from coronavirus swab tests taken on 19 March – the day the vessel docked.
But the inquiry found no systemic failures and said the mistakes had already been recognised by the state government.
Following the Ruby Princess debacle, at least a dozen other cruise ships were banned from docking at Australian ports due to their virus risk.