Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Major Rows as Government Department Charged with Responsibility for Covid Deaths

Failure to Apply Agreed Protocols at Port Seemingly Cost Lives as More Problems Emerge
Shipping News Feature

AUSTRALIA – There is a grim irony that, in a country which prides itself on its biosecurity defences, with all freight examined and treated to prevent alien flora and fauna invasions, that lack of basic common sense and suitable precautions in the matter of the current pandemic has seemingly caused the loss of dozens of human lives.

The case of the cruise ship Ruby Princess has highlighted serious failings in the federal department responsible. The vessel arrived at the Port of Sydney on 19 March 2020 carrying almost 2,700 passengers, some with cold and influenza-like symptoms. Despite the obvious signs they were allowed to disembark, sparking a chain of events which left 663 passengers and crew suffering from coronavirus disease and 28 dying from Covid 19.

In September 2020 Australia’s Inspector-General of Biosecurity, at the behest of the Minister for Agriculture, Hon. David Littleproud MP, investigated and issued a low profile preliminary report in April 2021. Now the full release of the review by the same body, seemingly after press coverage revealed it, illustrates a scathing attack on the way the affair was handled.

It would seem that the incident was an accident waiting to happen after the Commonwealth Agricultural department, responsible for stopping diseases at the border, failed over years to adopt the protocols it had agreed were necessary to prevent such a disaster.

The New South Wales special commissioner who investigated the Ruby Princess case illustrated how a 2017 Memorandum of Understanding, and a 2018 audit of such protocols led to an agreement from those responsible to act accordingly to prevent such an incident. No such changes were ever made.

The review found that the department must strengthen arrangements for intercepting Listed Human Diseases and human biosecurity risk material to ensure that efforts are being directed to areas of highest risk. He made several observations for improvements in Agriculture’s current management of human health risks. When the ship arrived none of the passengers were interviewed, neither was the ship’s captain and no inspection was made of the vessel’s medical logs.

Amazingly it seems an inexperienced, poorly trained inspector was tasked with the examination, the number of cases was not advised before the ship docked and the cursory check noted only some gastric infections on the voyage, with no mention of any respiratory problems.

Several foreign commercial vessels that entered Australian waters, including container vessels, cruise vessels, bulk cargo and break-bulk cargo vessels and livestock vessels, presented Covid-19 and other human health risks after World Health Organization’s announcement of Covid-19 as a global pandemic on 30 January 2020.

The report included 42 recommendations to improve the management of human biosecurity in the Vessels Pathway. Of these 42 recommendations, the Department of Agriculture agreed fully or in-principle with 38 recommendations and noted the remaining 4.

The release of the report has brought severe criticism from the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) which said the report highlighted the Department of Agriculture’s failure to prepare for the risk posed by cruise ships arriving in Australian ports despite Covid outbreaks already occurring on cruise ships overseas.

The union said despite this latest examination of the Ruby Princess outbreak, gaping holes remained in the nation’s maritime biosecurity measures, including a lack of testing for foreign seafarers, a reliance on self-declaration of illness on board, and no plan to vaccinate international crews visiting Australian ports.

MUA National Secretary Paddy Crumlin personally wrote to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and then Agriculture Minister Bridget McKenzie nearly two months before the Ruby Princess arrived in Sydney in March 2020 to warn of biosecurity failures, but the Federal Government failed to act. He commented:

“The Inspector-General’s review confirms what we already knew, critical failures by the Federal Government and the department responsible for managing biosecurity directly led to the deadly Covid outbreak that spread from the Ruby Princess. What should shock the Australian public is that 18 months into this pandemic, many of the gaping holes in maritime biosecurity remain, posing an ongoing threat to the community.

“Despite a growing number of international vessels arriving in Australian ports with Covid outbreaks on board, including the highly infectious Delta variant, we still don’t have a policy in place to test all seafarers arriving from overseas ports. Instead, Australia’s maritime biosecurity measures are still relying on the captain of these international vessels, who are under huge commercial pressure to avoid any potential shipping delays, to self-notify illness before any Covid testing takes place.

“With rapid testing now available, there is no excuse not to implement strict biosecurity measures that ensure every seafarer arriving from an international port is tested for Covid, with the provision of appropriate medical care and infection control measures put in place when the virus is detected.

“We also need a plan to vaccinate international seafarers, not only to protect them, but because Covid threatens the ongoing operation of maritime supply chains which are at the backbone of our economy. The Federal Government must learn from past mistakes in their handling of the Covid crisis and ensure best practice biosecurity measures are put in place to prevent future outbreaks.”

In further pandemic related news the MUA is urging the Western Australia government to immediately suspend the license of stevedore Qube while a thorough investigation is undertaken into how it claims major Covid safety breaches occurred at the company’s operations at the Port of Fremantle Inner Harbour over last weekend.

Photographs of Qube employees unloading a vessel on Sunday captured some workers not wearing masks, while others came into close contact with a foreign seafarer who was also not wearing PPE, in clear breach of the WA Government’s Exposed On-Board Worker Directions. The WA Police Force has commenced an investigation into the major public health breach following a report by the Maritime Union of Australia that unskilled workers, many who also didn’t have appropriate maritime security clearance, were working the vessel without appropriate PPE.

MUA WA Branch Secretary Will Tracey said Qube needed to be held responsible for their reckless disregard for Covid safety measures that had put the entire community at risk of exposure, observing:

“Qube has put the entire West Australian community at risk, threatening lives, the ongoing operation of our industry, and the broader economy through their reckless breaches of Covid safety measures. Photographic evidence confirms the vessel was not only being worked by people without facemasks, but that they came into close contact with a foreign seafarer who was also not wearing any PPE.

“Our industry has worked tirelessly for 18 months to implement strict Covid controls that protect workers, the community and the industry, preventing a single case of ship to shore transmission during that time, yet Qube have now thrown all those efforts overboard. Every single person who worked on this vessel over the weekend should be immediately quarantined and tested to ensure this doesn’t become a super-spreading event in the WA community.”

What has particularly fired up the MUA is that, due to an industrial dispute, the Union’s members have been ‘effectively locked out’ and replaced with casual labour from outside the industry. Mr Tracey continued:

“When Qube management decided to put unskilled, inexperienced people on this vessel without appropriate PPE, they risked the lives of those workers and threatened our entire community. With a growing number of Covid outbreaks on vessels arriving in WA ports, there must be zero tolerance for companies that ignore the WA Government’s Exposed On-Board Worker Directions.

“The WA Government must use its licensing powers to immediately halt Qube’s port operations until a thorough investigation takes place and appropriate measures are implemented to prevent a repeat. For three weeks, Qube has effectively locked out their Fremantle workforce.

“Our members have been insisting that the company notify them of what shift they will be working by 2pm the day before, as other operators do, but Qube has refused, instead attempting to force workers to surrender their demands by replacing them with unskilled labour. Qube’s decision to use unskilled workers, without appropriate experience or safety equipment, in the midst of a global pandemic shows how irresponsible and reckless their industrial agenda is.”

Photo: A photograph of unmasked workers, allegedly at the Qube facility, taken at the weekend by MUA staff.